Friday, November 18, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 10/2016

You know, October might be over and done, but events that have happened in November have forced me to revisit the SFF that I've read recently. I wish I could offer some sort of respite from current events, but that's not really what I'm doing here. It's like trying to make beer from water that's been tainted by frakking—it changes the flavors irreparably. To pretend otherwise would be, to me, dishonest and disrespectful.

But come in out of the growing cold. Sit down. The stories on tap this month are all about resistance and the numb divide between reality and paranoia. These are not all hopeless tales, but they are pieces that recognize the difficulty and the need to stand up against hate. They are pieces that describe the wild tumble down the rabbit hole that can cause us to question the very nature of existence, that pull away a mask covering an uncomfortable possibility. These are stories of blood and bullies. Violence and mourning and the sky falling. This is our world now. Drink up.


Tasting Flight - October 2016:

Art by Sam Schechter
"Plea" by Mary Anne Mohanraj (Lightspeed)
Let's kick things off with a taste of devastation and loss, injustice and violence. "Plea" by Mary Anne Mohanraj is all of that and more, a brutal blade twist to the gut that taste like an Imperial Scotch Ale to me, heavy and cloudy and with a taste that's hard to place, the flavors intense but nearly confusing. It's a story of people living on another world, humans who live together despite some being modified to adapt to the mostly-water world and some maintaining their base human markers. It's a situation that has worked for a long time, and yet as the human colonies are being swept by a wave of xeonophobia and fear, Gwen and her wife Rose had to worry what to do with their children in the face of violence. In the face of intolerance that wasn't supposed to spread out among the stars. It's a story of the powerless feeling that comes from watching a situation go from bad to worse. If you need a tale for the times we are living right now, read this one. Read about a family that wants to believe in peace, in human compassion, and finds that there are always limits, always exceptions that people write in to who is deserving of empathy. I read this story when it first came out and rereading it now is…well, I think it's even more important now, staring hatred and powerlessness in the face, forcing the reader to feel the weight of love and the threat of evoking the good old days. Like a certain situation going on now, the story reveals the ways in which humans can turn on each other, can blind themselves to harm being done, can simply declare that some people are worth more than others. And like an Imperial Scotch Ale the swirling flavors of the story slowly combine under the strength of the prose and message, leaving me as a reader stunned and sad and but also ready to stand and fight. 

Art by Reiko Murakami
"None of This Ever Happened" by Gabriela Santiago (Nightmare)
When you stare into the Black Ale, the Black Ale also stares back into you. And that's exactly what I feel about Gabriela Santiago's creepy "None of This Ever Happened," which combines a subtle sweetness with an almost tar-like punch that conveys the feeling of paranoia and drive that carries through the prose. The story is dominated by consumption and the truth and the twisting of both, so that the narrator is both ravenous and devoured, both sage and liar. The voice of the piece is immediate, the atmosphere dark and vivid. I love how the story takes the mundane and the terrifying and smashes them together, so that where reality ends and the fantastic begins is hard to tell, always a nebulous space between the narrator and the reader, one that shifts in and out of focus as the story progresses. And more than anything, to me, the story is about the power but also the danger of imagination. The way that the creative can command their gift but also the way that it can run away from them, the way that it can threaten them. Because to me the story resists a purely literal interpretation of what's going on. Is it more frightening that there is some sort of haunted rock that compels people to eat, to consume, or that a person's mind can be so creatively charged that envisioning such a story becomes a sort of curse? A sort of infection that undermines the stability of experience and reality and left me with a lingering dread and unease, an existential question mark wrapped in shadows and bathed in horror. Like a Black Ale it pours opaque and smoky, begging the reader to consume and consume until all that's left is an empty glass and a blank page. 

Art by Peter Mohrbacher
"The Calculations of Artificials" by Chi Hui, translated by John Chu (Clarkesworld)
Pale Ales taste almost like ghosts to me. They're not as brash or bitter as IPAs and there's something about them that feels…not exactly incomplete, but not fully filled in. And Chi Hui's "The Calculations of Artificials" plays with that idea wonderfully, the feeling that the world as some experience it is all an illusion for the benefit of those Actual people in a wide sea of artificial intelligences. On one level the story seems almost pessimistic, featuring a story where Actual humans must be kept separate from each other, surrounded by Artificials who are only active in the presence of humans, who make the world seem like it's kept going after Armageddon after Armageddon. And Aixia thinks he is one of the few in this world that know the truth, an Actual dedicated to helping to fix the problems facing humanity. An Actual who finds himself, amidst the ranks of Artificials, lonely. And little by little the story reveals a conspiracy to try and protect humanity from itself but also something else, something even larger than that deception. And I love how the story handles illusions and lies, how Aixia maintains the hope that humanity can still come together. And while the story offers a devastating blow Aixia's drive to reconnect with humanity, it does shine a light on the hope that lives even in the face of overwhelming destruction. It just doesn't ignore the harm done and the fact that there are not an infinite number of chances for humanity to overcome its violent and hateful tendencies. It's a story that builds up this vast show that Aixia thinks is for the benefit of the Actuals still living on Earth, and in that he's not wrong, but he does misjudge exactly what that means. It's a clever and challenging story, and like a Pale Ale it creates an experience of hints and vapors that leaves a ghostly presence on the tongue. 

"The Mourning Hour" by Anya Ow (GigaNotoSaurus)
There's something comforting about a Nut Brown, something that evokes for me sitting in front of a fire, being warm, and being with people you care about. So for me Anya Ow's "The Mourning Hour" tastes a lot like a Nut Brown, about a man reaching for something to comfort him in the long aftermath of a shattering loss. The plot unfolds across two timelines and features Kiat as he deals with his daughter, Anna, going off to Mars and dealing with the dramatic events that unfold there. The story is a mystery built around a collective absence, an attempt to colonize Mars that…does not go well. And now, much later, Kiat searches not for answers but for someone to fix the last thing his daughter gave to him, a small holographic dog who acts as his constant companion. And I love how Anna and the holographic dog become parallels, their losses cutting through everything in Kiat's life. With Anna on a different world, though, it becomes the quest to be reunited with his dog that takes on the greater urgency, in part because Kiat is never able to really find answers as to what happened with his daughter on Mars. Kiat is not a character who communicates well, is stuck in some ways by his own prejudices and by his own stubborn beliefs. It's something that separates him from his daughter and in some ways from his own emotions. It's the wall that he maintains to keep the flood of regrets and grief at bay. And after what happens on Mars, he patrols that wall with his dog, with this feeling that connects him back to the time before everything fell apart. It's a moving story about how the lack of closure can act as a festering wound, as something that never really heals, and so Kiat is left in orbit, unable to move on, finding comfort only in the things that remind him of before. It's an emotional and heavy story that, like a Nut Brown, invites the reader to sink into a rich, warm, dark complexity. 

"The Book of How to Live" by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Bracing. Spicy. Lightly bitter. It's how I would profile a Session IPA, a drink that speaks to me of autumn and the smell of burning leaves. It's also how I imagine "The Book of How to Live" by Rose Lemberg would taste, with an eye toward resistance and revolution and city teaming with magic, cultures, and history slowly coming to a boil. And that might seem a bit dramatic for a story that is, at the surface, about lanterns and machine lubricants water pumps. And yet the story does a magnificent job of looking at the economics of magic with a careful eye on where the magicless reside in a society that so strongly values magical talent. What happens when incredibly competent by magically ungifted individuals who have to live as second class (or third class) citizens decide that they're not going to be quiet any longer? I love the way the story builds the dissatisfaction and the many ways that progress can be uncut by dominant voices preaching patience and incremental growth. For those living under the oppression of injustice and inequality, being asked to wait is not a neutral act, does not come without harm. And the story builds a relationship between two characters who have come from entirely different worlds, both outsiders in a city that distrusts them. Both brilliant and driven. Both interested in doing the work of inventing, of creating things. Because there is a magic in that as well, one that doesn't spring from a deepname but rather comes from a person's mind and heart, their ability to see injustice and their hunger to fight it. Light a Session IPA, the story is strong and a bit fierce, but the potential bitterness is smoothed over by the rich spice of its hope and optimism. 

Art by Mark Smith
"Everything that Isn’t Winter" by Margaret Killjoy (Tor dot com)
When a story brings a healthy dose of explosions and mixes with equal parts unrest, stubbornness, and fear, as "Everything that Isn't Winter" by Margaret Killjoy does so well, it's a good chance it will pair superbly with a Red IPA, which is like fire in a bottle, bitter and moving but with a hint of blood and the frantic pounding of a heart. I love how this story layers a satisfying, action-packed plot with a resonating and lifting story of love and harm and fear. Aiden is a soldier in the story in a time when soldiers have pretty much screwed up the planet. What's left is supposed to be better, is supposed to be peaceful because the world can't afford more blood, and yet Aiden's position as defense for a small tea-growing commune is not a dull one when trouble arrives in a big way. At the same time, Aiden is having difficulty with their partner, Khalil, the two feeling a distance between them that is a living thing threatening to tear them apart. And to me, more than anything else, the story is about fear. Especially fitting, given everything, Aiden has to defend themself against a group of bullies and a charismatic leader determined to take what the commune has built. It is a striking and dynamic story that examines how Aiden fights back against fear. The fear of acting against a threat of violence. The fear of not living up the promise of a new world. And the fear of…not death, exactly, but of the loneliness that it might bring. I love basically everything about this story and especially how the quieter moments are the more difficult ones, that there is a freedom in the flight of bullets and the dance of corpses, but something so much more real in two people standing in the night and talking, really talking. Like a Red IPA the story lights a fire. Not to burn things down, though, but rather to bring warmth and shelter and a spot of comfort against the dark.


"Butter-Daughters" Nin Harris (Sockdolager)
Have I told you that I love SFF cooking stories? Yes? Well, let me tell you again by saying how much I love this story, which to me goes down like a Butter Cream, a mix of 1 part butterscotch schnapps, 1 part Irish cream, and 2 parts milk, served over ice. In a very short amount of space this piece reveals a world richly developed and strictly ruled. There is a magical butter. You cannot eat it, must not eat it, when a certain moon is in the sky. Why not? Well… The story begins as a sort of instructional piece, the voice well versed in the history of this butter which is in some ways the history of the people of the region, a mix of science fiction and fantasy into something sublime and moving. And yet even as the story creeps forward, building the mythology of this butter, there's something else that happens as well. A subtle twisting of the tone of the piece. An emphasis on the horrific aspects of the consequences of eating this butter at the wrong moment, and a growing obsession with knowing what that forbidden flavor tastes like. As the story draws to its close it's obvious that something dark is going on, and it is a seductive read, one that made me as a reader like my lips and wonder. Wonder… And like a Butter Cream the story goes down smooth and easy but leaves the taster mired with a quiet longing for more. For more… 

"Rabbit Heart" by Alyssa Wong (Fireside Fiction)
Grief is a powerful thing, which I guess is why it often gets broken down into stages. How people proceed through those stages is often very personal, but the general goal seems to be to battle forward toward acceptance. And yet what if there was a way to step in and slap a band-aid on grief so that denial and acceptance look kind of the same? That's the premise of this story, which sees a person able to create replicas of lost loved ones, though not perfect ones, and the story tastes like a Rabbit's Foot to me, a mix of two parts Rye with a single part apricot liqueur and a dash of bitters and evoking a desperate hope to change circumstances. It's a tale that looks at the realities of people unwilling to move on, who bring their loved ones back, sometimes over and over again. At first it might seem like the main character is only cashing in on grief, perpetuating the cycles of abuse that led to many of these tragedies in the first place. And in some ways that's not wrong. At the same time, though, the story goes much deeper than that, reaching into the heart of loss and desperation and tapping into that blind hope that maybe things are ruined. Especially now that's an understandable desire, to see the damage done and want simply to see it undone. But the story also acknowledges that any illusory change is fleeting, and that ultimately there must be a reckoning. It's a tender and moving story that, like a Rabbit's Foot, is strong and sweet and crushingly deep. 

"The Sky, Falling" by Anton Rose (Terraform)
With a single misstep the action of this story goes from relaxed to relentless, moving in a fluid arch that hits with the power of a Skydiver, a mix of equal parts vodka and orange juice and capturing the feel of open air. In the story Suref is an engineer in a future where the skies must be maintained to mitigate climate change—where overcast skies are literally saving the planet. And yet in the face of such technological achievement there is also a sense of loss to the piece, and a danger of further loss, because while creating technology to fight against the effects of climate change might be necessary to survive, it only treats the symptom rather than fighting the infection. Suref maintains the machines in a delicate balance, everything supposedly kept perfectly in order. And yet the story shows that an claim at perfection is illusory, and that we are always one step from the edge for as long as we do not act to sweepingly change our ways of life and how we create energy and treat our planet. The prose is beautiful, both nearly nostalgic and paternal and all so collected in the face of what happens. Suref has a family to think of, and he remembers them as a way of telling himself it will be okay. And yet even family is only an illusion of continuity should things go from bad to worse, and the story does not flinch away from the hard truth of gravity. Of entropy. Of human nature. All can be denied for a time, but out of all of them only human nature can be truly changed, and we might be running out of time. Like a Skydiver, the story offers the sound of wind rushing past, the numbers that cannot be denied of the ground growing closer and closer.


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