Friday, January 13, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 12/2016

2016. I think that my subtitle for the year would be "Well, that escalated quickly." And there are many explanations for why the year went the way it did. I think my personal favorite involves Scalia coming back as a revenant to devour the joy from the world, but I guess this isn't the place for those particular conspiracy theories.

Whatever your feelings on 2016 as a year, it's without doubt that I say that it produced some absolutely stunning SFF short fiction, and December was no exception. Indeed, my favorite December reads on tap today are some of my favorite of the year, closing things out strong and resonating into the new year. These are the stories we might need going forward, mixing tragedy and hope, memory and humor. These are stories about resistance and about coming together as people, individuals frightened and alone and hurt, and learning to reach out with love instead of hate. Learning to ask and answer the hard questions about who and what matters.

So sit back and relax and let your trusty storytender pour something to take the edge off. Or, if you want, to give you some new edges and sharpen the ones you have. A new year is started, but that doesn't mean we can't raise one last Round to 2016. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - December 2016

Lovely Creatures Studio
"The Venus Effect" by Joseph Allen Hill (Lightspeed)

Bold, dark, and chewy. Pouring a midnight black and deep with a nose of gun smoke and ash, "The Venus Effect" by Joseph Allen Hill captures the texture and density of an Imperial Stout, powerful and unapologetic. The piece unfolds slowly, up front in its strength and violence but as it breathes it develops complexity and added notes of resistance and hope. The story is framed as a conversation between a storyteller and their audience. And, depending on who you are and how much you want to immerse in the story, you might become that audience. If you let it, the story might speak directly to you. And in many ways that's the reading that gave me the most satisfying experience, to let my resistance to the voice and the style and the repeated intrusions into the text of an outside and violent force fade so that in some ways I entered into the story. And I love that reading of the tale because the story is then filled with my silence. The narrator attempts to tell a story, to express themself and have fun. To exist within the space of speculative fiction. But they aren't able to, and the reader becomes something of a silent force complicit in this oppression, complicit in the deaths of these characters. The story breaks down walls to ask the readers to answer a question—not a new one, exactly, but one that must be asked again and again and again. The story does a great job of treating the various genres and sub-genres, of bringing this question out and making the reader face it, pushing the reader to break that silence. Like an Imperial Stout the story draws the reader in and doesn't let go, provides an experience that is lifting as much as it is sinking, and leaving me at least a little bleary but quite moved.

Art by Denise Yap
"Hurricane Heels" by Isabel Yap (Book Smugglers)

Brash, joyous, and lifting. With a glow that turns golden in the light and a nose of open fields and clear skies, with just a hint of something coppery like blood, "Hurricane Heels" by Isabel Yap is an Amber Ale to me, invigorating and crisp. The story is in no ways light or fluffy, though, as one might assume about Amber Ales. No, it sits heavy on the tongue with enough nuance and layers to satisfy even the most discerning of palates. The story plays with an old classic, with the idea of magical girls chosen to fight in a battle of good versus evil, and lays it over top an examination of adolescence and growing up, identity and friendship and the power of love. And this one story is technically five stories, but I'm just going to treat it as a novella because they weave together, telling one story that really can't be pulled out from the others. No more, at least, than one of the five friends can be pulled from the others. There is a gravity to them, an affirmation that can only come from people who have such a vibrant and traumatic shared past. Their lives are violent and their mission crushing. They carry the weight of the world, and all worlds, on their shoulders and prove that they are more than just the rolls they've been assigned. The character work in this story is stunning and the relationships are my favorite in short SFF in all of 2016. This is a story that brings you to the brink of despair and just a little further, but refuses even then to give up, to stop believing. The story is about, to me, the redemptive power of love and not just romantic love but platonic as well. The love of friends. The love of family. It's a story of magic and of fighting and of being afraid of faltering or failing. But like an Amber Ale the story captures a bit of sunshine that's warm and satisfying and leave a gleam of hope in its wake.

Art by Emily Osborne
"Black, Their Regalia" by Darcie Little Badger (Fantasy)

Fun, unashamed, and triumphant. Capturing a stunning darkness emboldened by a sly humor and fantastic hope in the face of tragedy, "Their Black Regalia" by Darcie Little Badger is a Black Ale, swift and bracing and with a nose like death smiling. The story follows a band. Of musicians. Of friends. Tulli, Kristi, and Moraine have all contracted the Big Plague, an illness that is as mysterious as it is deadly. They are being taken by train to a place where they will be cared for until they die. There aren't many other options. And yet the characters have such a life to them, and though they are of different opinions about the existence of the supernatural, they nonetheless know that there is power in belief, and more power still in people coming together to help and inspire each other. There's always the option of giving into despair and death, but the characters instead decide to celebrate. Death and life. Tragedy and comedy. They are artists, and being sick only pushes them to expand their art, to open themselves up to new experiences. What follows is a piece that remains joyous and hopeful even in a place as morose as a sick-camp. Even when the rest of the world seems only to want to push these people somewhere they will be forgotten and ignored. They refuse. And they refuse to see death and the forces at work here as inherently evil. The Big Plague seems to be a part of something, and it's something that they can fight. So they do. And I just love the characters here, love the way they joke and the way they come together, strengthen each other, instead of falling apart. There is dance and there is music and there is song and there is a power there to stamp out the Big Plague and maybe introduce a different kind of infection. One of love. Like a Black Ale the story takes on some dark material, but resists being heavy or unapproachable, instead focusing on the joy in the darkness, the warmth to be found in the shadows.

"Das Steingeschöp" by G. V. Anderson (Strange Horizons)

Heavy, complex, and dense. Pouring like a cloudy day choked of sun and with a nose of nostalgia and regret, " Das Steingeschöp" by G. V. Anderson washes over the reader like an Winter Ale, spiced and aromatic and with the feeling of sitting by a fire to keep the cold at bay. The story mixes magic and history, revealing Hertzel, a man who has escaped poverty to become one of the few trained to repair and create magical constructs. Even so, his possibly Jewish background in a Germany beginning to ramp up towards World War II, is not something that he's able to leave behind. Still, he's on his first real assignment on his own, which turns out to be much different than he expected. The story does a great job of building up this alternate history, so like our own but with what equates to sentient works of art, constructs with wills of their own but imbued with the memories of their creators and those that work on them. And the story is heavy with the weight of those memories, as Hertzel reveals that there's more than just looking Jewish to make him at risk. He carries a pain and a love that slowly surfaces throughout the narrative, one that he never got to fully act on but that still binds him, that still twists inside him like a wound. He's a character used to hiding and dealing with abuse, used to trying to blend in and not make waves. And yet the more that those tactics fail him and the more he realizes what he loses by blending in, the more he has to confront the past so that he can move into the future. It's an interesting and artfully woven piece that looks at art and intent, identity and safety. It's a piece to me that speaks of yearning and desire and how being under constant threat can tear a person apart. But how, through all of that, there is also hope, also resistance. Like a Winter Ale this story is about capturing something warm in a world of cold, about staying true to yourself even if that means being more at risk.

"The Jeweled Nawab Jungle Retreat" by Priya Sridhar (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Rebellious, strong, and dedicated. Pouring a golden red and with a bitter laugh that plays like blood and freedom on the tongue, "The Jeweled Nawab Jungle Retreat" by Priya Sridhar challenges like a Red IPA, full of rebellion and strength and a refusal to submit to injustice. The story plays out in colonized India, where wealthy Europeans visit the Jeweled Nawab Jungle Retreat to hunt the subcontinent's most dangerous game—mythic creatures. And while most of the time the guides can convince the guests that they truly are stronger than the jaws and cunning of the local inhabitants, sometimes things get a little…out of hand, and everyone is reminded that some things cannot be broken and cannot be tamed. The main character of the tale is Ram, a woman who passes as a man in order to work to support her siblings and family. She comes to the jungle retreat to make money, but finds there something else even more important. Books. Learning. The story of Ram is one of addiction to knowledge and experience. She is captivated by these stories and these words, and only wants more, only wants to continue to be allowed to work. It's something that is threatened when a wealthy couple decide they are going to kill the most dangerous of the local creatures to make a trophy for their wall, and that they will use Ram to help them. I love how the story gives Ram a true choice instead of forcing her into the patterns that are reinforced by colonial narratives. Ram is acting in many ways, playing on prejudices. Not just by passing as a man but by passing as someone who doesn't know that the Europeans view her only as a sacrifice, as a price to be paid. But even though she plays into their game to some extent, she retains her agency, her mind, and her wits, and things don't go exactly as anyone expects. It's a story about refusing to cave to societal pressures, about finding your own goals and pursuing them, and like a Red IPA the story acknowledges that sometimes that means blood will be spilled.

"A World Alone" by Lauren Rudin (GigaNotoSaurus)

Tart, smoky, and elusive. Pouring a fire in the night, and with a nose of burned hopes and strained memories, "A World Alone" by Lauren Rudin in a Cherry Porter to me, a subtle fruity flavor that slips away even as it settles, leaving the taster to chase after, ever deeper and deeper. The story is built around a loss, in this case the loss of a mad scientist. And okay, yes, I might have a soft spot for mad scientists but for me the story becomes about this woman who lived larger than life, who pushed the boundaries of science and ethics and science and wasn't afraid to take chances. But who also was. But who also was deeply concerned about the implications of her research and her inventions and who, at her core, was working to try and protect people. To try and save people. But who was, ultimately, human. And the story looks at Macklin, her assistant, who is left behind in the wake of her passing and is forced to face her actions and her legacy. And in many ways he comes to embody that legacy, the ambiguity of her character. And the story is, otherwise, a touching and beautiful portrait of grief and a very interesting twist on a certain kind of story. And I just love how it takes something like super science, something often portrayed as silly and ridiculous, and gives it this rich human element, this beating heart that won't quiet. And I love the kitten. Really, though, the piece does capture something about loss and about what makes us human, what makes us valuable. It's a slower sort of story, told in memories and sadness, but one that finds its resolve by the end, that reaches towards justice and resistance. Like a Cherry Porter the story features a heavy darkness and just the hint of something sweet and affirming, something that seems on the verge of sinking out of sight but that might just be within reach.


Art by Sandro Castelli
"Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016" by Alex (Rachael) Acks (Shimmer)

Okay I had to. Not just because I love this story. Not just because it's an incredibly effective bit of atmospheric horror with a lovely hook and a chilling execution. And not just because it features ghost tasting which works a lot like wine tasting only one hundred times creepier. No, it's because _all those things_ that this is a Ghost Drink, a mix of one part whiskey with two parts vanilla rum and topped with cream soda, something heavy and sharp but also nearly disturbingly sweet. As I said, this story proves that gripping horror doesn't need a lot of space, and unfolds a richly imagined house full of tastes and sights and terrors. The central idea, that of tasting ghosts, is just amazing. I love it. The story is framed like a menu, opened because of a connoisseur's dying wish that this be made available. And the menu is a story of a house is a story of one person who seems to be at the heart of every tragedy that unfolds in the house. It is a violent story. A difficult story. There is no happy endings here, only the dread that rises and lodges in the throat, that slowly unfurls like a wine breathing, maturing. The nested narratives here are complex and the language and tone read a bit like a formal occasion at the Crypt Keeper's. And perhaps even more terrifying than the stories of the deaths that haunt this home is the idea first that there are those eager to taste them all and that there's a thirst deeper still that's lingering, that's pushing others to push the boundaries on better taste through human suffering. Like a Ghost Drink the story works slowly but relentlessly, drawing to an ending that is devastatingly crushing.

Art by Julie Dillon
"Can't Beat 'Em" by Nalo Hopkinson (Uncanny)

This is another story that deals with taste and the strangeness surrounding us all, but in a much less creepy way. Well…maybe that's not quite right. Spinning a tale of inevitability and entropy and attraction in the face of it all, this piece tastes like a Heat Death of the Universe to me, a mix of one part brandy, one part peppermint schnapps, and one part amaretto, that creates a stunning tapestry of the universe all with one end in mind. The story is about a sort of infestation. Or, perhaps more accurately, a clog, and shows two women, Marisella and Dot, in a bathroom, talking (maybe flirting a little) while Dot, a plumber, clears the clog, which happens to be a glup. And the nature of glups, as Dot reveals them, begins to change Marisella's perception of the world. Of the universe. There is a sort of epiphany that she has, learning that there are such things as glups, things that can only be devoured but never die. And learning that she is a part of that cycle, of glups devouring glups, ever bigger until they implode, until they spawn entirely new realities. The story is fun and fits an entire multiverse into the body of a (fairly disturbing, tbh, and also fairly cute) glup. And the story evokes the potential of each person and the power of each person in the face of the largest of scales. Because each reality-shattering glup starts somewhere. Starts with just the smallest of things. And it grows. And if that can be true for drain clogs then it can true of other things. Like ideas. Like love. And it's a story that never loses sight of the characters and never forgets their power. To plant an idea and to act on that idea. Like a Heat Death of the Universe, it hits with the power of a cosmos dying, and the does with style and joy.

Art by Dario Bijelac
"A Menagerie of Grief" by Kelly Sandoval (Flash Fiction Online)

And I hope you're ready to cry. Because, drawing on a deep well of loss and sadness, this story makes manifest the feeling of grief and goes down like a Well of Sorrow, a mix of equal parts vodka, blue curacao, and lemon juice and topped with hard lemonade, that goes down hard and sits in the pit of the stomach like a stone. And for each person grief is different. A different shape. A different size. A different monster. And for Shane and Will, who have just lost their daughter, their griefs might just tear them apart. The story keeps central the almost competitive nature of sorrow. That it's selfish. That it's cruel. For Shane and Will, that their griefs are different is part of what drives them away from each other, that each feels their grief is more real, more of a burden. And I love how the story frames grief in that way, always different for each person but none of them better. None of them more valuable. Each of them suffers and the distance between them only grows with the resentment, with the way their griefs fester and pull at them. It is a deeply emotional read and not one to be approached lightly, but it is also a beautiful examination on how people deal with loss. And how there is the danger of losing yourself to grief. Losing your relationship to grief. Losing everything to grief. And I love that the story doesn't offer a magical cure. There is no moment where they slay each other's grief and simply carry on. They hurt. And they hurt each other in their hurt. And there is hope, that by realizing what they're doing they can counter it and start the work of healing. Together. But it's work and it's time and it's just lovely. Like a Well of Sorrow the story is intensely powerful, a sledgehammer right to the feels.

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