Friday, December 16, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 11/2016

The year is almost over. And 2016 has been…an interesting year. Full of highs and lows. Especially November. So it might be no surprise that this month's tasting flight is a mix of dark and brash with a touch of fun. There are stories that demand to be read and confronted, to see the terror of gaslighting or the power of resistance. There are stories that are a breath of fresh air, a joyous shout in a crowded room of friends. And there are stories that wait like little envelopes addressed to those who need to know, who need to see—stories that explode with the power of the injustice they reveal.

There is a fair amount of SFF horror in this flight. Perhaps it's a sign of the horror we suddenly see stretching forward into our futures. This is not false. This is not in our heads or an overreaction. Here, at least, in these stories, we choose to face the horror. To let it in. To carve out a space in us and make us shiver. And then we can choose to expel it back and go about our business. And maybe the reason that there's so much horror this month is because I don't want to expel it back. Maybe what I want is to let it in and leave it sit in the a hollow place above my heart so that I won't be scared when the time comes to stand up against horrors much more tangible—horrors that I did not choose.

In any event, huddle close. If there's one good thing about the winter and a good horror story it's that they prompt us to share warmth and strength. To remember that we are not alone.

Tasting Flight - November 2016 

Art by Vincent Chong
"The House That Jessica Built" by Nadia Bulkin (The Dark)
Cloudy, complex, and smoky, with a nose like a log cabin during a thunderstorm and a pour that seems to devour the light. "The House That Jessica Built" by Nadia Bulkin, a Dark Lager of a story to me, is the first on tap today. The story stars a young woman named Rue who is being haunted. Oh, and gaslighting. The story definitely stars gaslighting as well as everyone decides that this ghost is just a figment of Rue's imagination, or perhaps a way for her to cope with the death of her mother. What follows is a disturbing tale of how dangerous it can be to disregard the truths that women and young people tell. The story is text book when it comes to building tension and isolating Rue from everyone else, making her seem insane not because she's wrong but because even in the face of overwhelming evidence that something is going on people would rather just blame her and move on with their business. For Rue, though, and for survivors of abuse and trauma, there is no such escape. Rue is trapped, not sure if she can even believe herself, which only deepens the terror and the tragedy of the piece. I love how the story builds Rue as a character, as a young woman trying to navigate this darkness that she shouldn't have to deal with and certainly shouldn't have to deal with alone. It shows how families can turn in on each other, how they can tear themselves apart, and how Rue is left with a choice, to believe everyone else and internalize what's happening or to own her experiences and move forward. It's a difficult story but for me, ultimately, a hopeful one, and like a Dark Lager there's a small sweetness lying deep within the swirling dark. 

"Standing on the Floodbanks" by Bogi Takács (GigaNotoSaurus)
Bracing, rich, and bitter, a study in contradictions and contrasts but with a gravity towards unity and cooperation. "Standing on the Floodbanks" by Bogi Takács is a Syrah IPA to me, beer and wine finding a delicate balance in this story of war and corruption and resistance. In it, Aniyé is a young woman who has been used by her birth nation as a tool of war, as a thing that can be controlled to harness magical power. Withholding the training necessary to stay alive without control, Aniyé is in a very vulnerable position when she is found by the High Mage Oresuy, a woman who understands power and the abuses of governments all too well. Under Oresuy's protection and guidance Aniyé begins to learn more about her power, and what it means to be treated with respect. Just because Oresuy is a good person, though, doesn't mean that her government is any more morally upstanding than Aniyé's homeland. I love how the story builds the setting and reveals that in war it is often the case that there is no "good side," that even the idea of winners and losers is deeply flawed, because mired in the conflict everyone loses. Lives, certainly, and resources. But more than that, people lose perspective, and begin to think that actions they know are wrong might be allowed. Because isn't winning a war worth anything? It's a fantastic tour of nations on a war footing, sacrificing the rights of citizens for any advantage against the enemy. The relationship between Aniyé and Oresuy is complex and compelling and like a Syrah IPA it walks a fine line between borders while maintaining an amazing power and subtlety. 

Art by Danial Inneil
"Screamers" by Tochi Onyebuchi (Omenana)
Strong, vivid, and shockingly concentrated, distilling an idea and a feeling again and again until it seems to leap fully formed from the head of the bottle, Athena-style, fully armored and ready to fight. "Screamers" by Tochi Onyebuchi hits me like a Triple IPA, abv in the double digits and a taste sharp enough to be seductive and devastating. The story is told from the point of view of a young man who follows in his father's footsteps to become a law enforcement officer, part of a group of African immigrants brought in to police mostly black people resisting the overreach of the government and the police force. And as a police officer the main character comes to know Screams, the concentrated frustration and rage and feelings of a person living under the weight of oppression, of systems of injustice. He's brought into a special unit that specializes in dealing with Screams, with diffusing them, which can only be achieved by not feeling, by staying emotionally detached. But more and more the main character finds that it's not so easy, that staying detached also does something to a person, and that really what he wants to do is listen, and experience, and be elevated by the sound of art and feeling, even if it destroys him. The story touches on a lot of things, but at it's core I read it as about art and specifically the art of resistance, which takes the pain of oppression and crafts it into a sort of weapon. Weaponized empathy. Which can hit harder than an explosion. Which can bring down buildings, and people, and ideas, and institutions. Like a Triple IPA the story is a distillation of frustration and anger, a cry for justice that cannot be denied, that leaves the reader bleary and dazed and awake and alive. 

"A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover from the Bottom of the Sea" by Ada Hoffman (Strange Horizons)
Deep, sweet, and chewy, pouring an inky black that appears cold at first but slowly reveals a glowing warmth that spreads and fortifies. "A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover from the Bottom of the Sea" by Ada Hoffman tastes like a Vanilla Stout to me, dense and with an almost combative first sip that quickly slips into something more yearning and intimate. The story plays out in second person, as the title implies, and I love the way that it does so, drawing the reader in to what might seem at first like a standard magic. This isn't exactly a story about bringing a dead love one back from the dead. It's a story of consent and damage, darkness and patience. The idea of a spell evokes something…well, if not precisely easy, then definitely immediate. The implication is that you wave your hands and regardless of what anyone has to say about it, what you want happens. And yet the magic here is not so forceful, not so coercive. It is a slow kind of spell that the narrator casts, that the narrator asks the reader to experience. A spell that resists the common tropes and implications. That something can be fixed just by waving at it. That some things can be fixed at all. In many ways the story speaks to me of change and of love. Because to me the spell in question does seem to be love. And again, it's something people assume fixes things. Makes things better. You get your love and you get a happily ever after. But that's not quite what this story is about. It's about love not being enough, about needing to care about a person's consent and desires, even if you don't agree with them, even if you think they are harmful. Because there is no spell or love that can "fix" depression or trauma. And the narrator leads the reader through the multiple avenues of care, self care definitely included, and points forward to no definite future but an uncertainty lingers and settles. Like a Vanilla Stout, the story is not without its sweetness, but it's also not without a heavy darkness, and it's up to the reader whether to sink or swim. 

Art by Elizabeth Leggett
"The Indigo Ace and the High-Low Split" by Annalee Flower Horne (Mothership Zeta)
Jubilant, flavorful, and easy to drink, pouring a luminous gold and with a nose of youth and adventure. "The Indigo Ace and the High-Low Split" to me is a Wheat Ale brewed with lemon zest and spices, a familiar taste livened and complicated by the addition of elements that make the experience more joyous and more fun. This story is about superheroes. Or, perhaps, this story uses superheroes to tell a story about youth and being ignored and unappreciated. About seeing your accomplishments given to someone else. At least, that's what's happening to Izzie, the Indigo Ace, who works as her father's sidekick but also on her own, where she finds too often that people dismiss her because of her age and because she doesn't meet a certain "respectability" level. And the story has a great momentum to it, a great sense of fun and justice. Izzie is a young woman who very much knows her own worth and just wishes that other people would catch on, which is a situation that many young people find themselves in. Not that they are without reproach, as Izzie finds herself in a situation she can't quite handle on her own a time or two. But the story recognizes that needing help isn't something that is unique to young people. Everyone needs help occasionally, and if that was used to take away people's agency there would be no heroes left. What Izzie realizes and starts to get other people to see is that she does know what she is doing, and she can see some things that no one else can because of her perspective, because she isn't so much a part of the system yet that she believes it blindly. I like how the story shows Izzie working to do right by her city, her parents, but most of all, by herself. It's a story of superpowers and persistence, and like a Wheat Ale brewed with lemon zest and spices, it takes a nice base and builds from there, unafraid to try new things or take chances. 

"The Marvelous Inventions of Mr. Tock" by Daniel Baker (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Defiant, mysterious, and intense, with a sly grin concealed by an impenetrable shadow and the feel of slowly going numb. "The Marvelous Inventions of Mr. Tock" by Daniel Baker feels like a Black IPA to me, unapologetically dark and brash, almost unsettling and definitely memorable. The story features Latch, who is supposed to uphold justice, who is supposed to punish those who are found guilty of breaking the law, on a assignment. On a mystery. One that takes him around his city and also into the twisted horrors of one person's mind, someone who, like Latch, has become rather disillusioned by the way the justice system works. The mood of the story is vaguely noir, Latch a man trying to navigate a bad situation while slowly cracking under the pressures of propping up the corruption around him. He thinks of himself as a good man with an interest in justice but his actions don't always speak of that, and as he chases after the elusive Dr. Tock, he begins to see something bigger going on, something he's supposed to stop and cover up and can't quite seem to. I like how the story is a bit unhinged in time, following about a week's amount of time but definitely not linearly. Latch's investigation crosses with a recent incident where he acted in a manner unbecoming a man in his position, and this case might be his punishment or his chance to show his superiors his loyalty. What it turns into…well, the story does an excellent job of slowly ramping up the tension, showing each new grisly discovery Latch makes as driving him more and more at odds with his position and his sanity. It's not an easy read, and the ending especially holds nothing back, but it's also a compelling read that looks at justice and what happens when corruption has so infesting a place that the only remedy might be to cut away the infected areas. Like a Black IPA there's a darkness as well as a brash action to the piece, and it's definitely a story to read with all the lights decidedly on.

Shots:

Art by Julie Dillon
"Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies" by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny)
 Reclaiming the story of victims of violence, this piece puts me in the mind of a Black Hole, a mix of equal parts dark rum, Chartreuse, and black sambuca and capturing the feeling of gravity and power, darkness and the hope for freedom. It's a story that doesn't hesitate to look at violence. To confront the reader with many uncomfortable images and ideas, but not in a very traditional way. It's a story about murder, and yet there are no real details about how the killing was done. There is no backstory into the killer to make sense of it all. There is really no effort to make this death about the killer. It's about the woman who was killed. It's her voice that drives the narrator. Not for revenge, as might also have been expected, but to retrieve something that he took in that moment when she became his victim. The story. This piece looks at how the story of death and murder become owned by the killers and not their victims. Their victims become unimportant while the killers are immortalized. And this story seeks to reverse that, to make the point not meeting out some sort of fitting punishment but to blot the murder out. To forget his name and his face and make him just an obscure note in someone else's story. And how the story does that is fun and fast and full of movement and feeling. This is a wrong that the main character feels acutely and she has the power to do something. Again, I think if this were just a revenge story it wouldn't have hit me so strongly. It's not about how the deaths. It's about the stories, and about the power of stories to create justice. That we as writers and we as people have a choice of who we remember and who we listen to. And that, together, it's a story that we can seek to hold, that we can seek to make just. And like a Black Hole, the story mixes layers of meaning into an experience that burns the throat but makes you want to scream down the highway with the windows down. 

"Ndakusuwa" by Blaize M. Kaye (Fantastic Stories)
Examining the relationship between a man and his daughter, between a man and hope, this story tastes like a Blast Off, a mix of equal parts orange liqueur, vodka, and Galliano with double parts orange and pineapple juice that brings to mind partings and departures and the possibility that there won't be a return. The story focuses on Lameck, whose daughter from a young age wants to know how things work. From a watch to the universe, she wants to be a part of discovery, and Lameck must weigh his own desire to be near his daughter not only against what would be best for her, but what kind of world he would be promoting by preventing her. The story is richly optimistic and comes at a time when I need that, when I want that. Because it speaks with trust of future generations and with respect for them as well. That Lameck trusts and respects his daughter enough to listen to what she wants. To know that he might be lonely but that the world and the galaxy and the universe are larger than his loneliness, and if humanity is going to survive, going to press onward into the unknown, children will need the trust and support of their parents. Will need people to see that the world can be better and allow it to be, encourage it to be, and not stand in its way. And the story builds this by showing the many times that Lameck must watch his daughter go, each one wrenching but each one full of hope and joy and love. It's an emotional piece and one that's stunningly captured. Like a Blast Off, the story evokes loss and partings and loneliness, but also the beauty of change and the power of chasing dreams. 

Art by Joseph Biwald
"Afrofuturist 419" Nnedi Okorafor (Clarkesworld)
Combining audio and text, horror and science fiction, humor and satire, this story seems like a Cosmonaut to me, a mix of one part vodka and two parts tang over ice that calls up older and more dangerous days of space exploration,  but doesn't lose it's sense of fun. The story itself is told as an online news article about a Nigerian man trapped in space following the abandoning of a Russian space station. The premise is rather clever and funny, that the only reason people know about him is because of a scam letter that one of his relatives used to try and make money from his situation. And yet it did bring the attention required for the corporation responsible for his abandonment to vow to bring him down. I love the tone of the piece, because it reads like a click-bait article that you would find online and slowly becomes…something more. The story stays distant from the man until it comes to a recording. And that's when the story becomes multi-sensory, because the audio is an actual audio produced for the story that captures the voice of this man lost in space. His frustration and his humor and the fact that things are not exactly what they seem where he is. That his situation might be more dire than people suspected. And the story pulls off this twist into horror in a wonderful way, driving home not only the horror of his situation but the damning fact that he's been treated like this because of racism, because the corporation was betting that no one would care about one African. It's a story that captures so much, from the abuses that corporations commit on a daily bases to the need for people to be aware and to be loud and to listen to the voices calling out for help. It's a fun and compelling story that innovates with its use of audio and like a Cosmonaut it mixes elements well, sweet and strong, funny and horrifying.

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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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