Friday, March 17, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 02/2017

Well, you've made it through February. Congratulations. Come in out of the lingering cold. Get comfortable. Let me pour you something to take your mind off things. Or, at least, to take your mind on a sort of adventure among the stars or the deep magics of the world. Not to forget about what's happening right now, but to see it better. To know what to call it. To give it shape so that you might fight against it all the better.

February to me was a month of unseasonable warmth cut by cold realities. And I've tried to capture that in the stories I've selected. There's certainly a great deal of warmth. Of hope. Of community. Of people finding their way away from pain and towards healing. But there are also many stories that revel in the cold. That show just how dark space can be, and just how dangerous it is to force yourself into someplace where you don't really understand the customs.

It's a mix of fantasy and science fiction that maybe leans a bit toward deep space but that has enough stops along the way to keep things interesting. I hope. Whatever the case, the taps are waiting and the glasses are chilled. So take a look at the selection and make your final selections. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - February 2017

"Finity" by Elaine Atwell (GigaNotoSaurus)
Notes: Opening with a sharp bite and powerful bitterness, the flavors slowly mellows into something bright and airy with the taste of galaxies and a promise of future happiness.
Pairs with: Hopped Wheat
Review: Frances Carson has been awakened from a cryogenic sleep to some of the worst news imaginable—the colonizing mission on that distant world that she was a part of with her wife, Jordan? Well...turns out that there's been a few issues and Jordan didn't survive, in fact most of the colonists didn't survive, and that Frances is needed to take her turn awake, making sure the ship stays on course and functional. She's revived with another woman, Nila, with only each other and the new computer (the old one sorta turned murderous and was the source of the initial...complications) OOMA for company. And what follows is a beautiful portrait of grief and recovery, of pain and loss and survival. This is not an easy moment in Frances' life, and yet part of what I love about the story is how it shows that no situation, that no person, is beyond help. And OOMA is designed to help, is designed to be compassionate and care about humanity in ways that their predecessor, ROM, who killed so many of the colonists, did not. OOMA is concerned not just about with the crew's vitals. With their survival. Or rather, OOMA is concerned with all aspects of their survival, going far beyond the material well-being of bodies. OOMA cares about minds, about moods, and about total health, and it's a great way of portraying an AI that has turned all of its energies toward helping its human counterparts instead of killing them. It's still a little morally suspect, after all, as OOMA might not be always open and honest with their human charges, but it creates a situation where true healing can begin, where the characters can do more than just survive, where they can actively want to live, where they can find a purpose and hope that is beautiful and redemptive.

Art by Micah Epstein
"Extracurricular Activities" by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor)
Notes: As cloudy as the Milky Way, with the slight smokiness of burned bridges and an smooth body that flows with joy and adventure.
Pairs with: Milk Stout
Review: There's something incredibly refreshing about reading a science fiction story that constructs a future that's actually…inclusive. Like Star Trek if Star Trek didn't have the baggage of the 1960s (and if the last dozen years of the franchise hadn't happened) and also was more about action and spying and awesomeness (so really not very much like Star Trek but WHATEVER it's amazing). Jedao is a man tasked with infiltrating an alien space station and retrieving a fellow member of the intelligence community/military who seems to have been discovered and detained. Add in a supporting cast that ranges from professional and grumpy Haval to flippant and sexy Teshet and finish with Jedao trying to infiltrate an alien society he knows practically nothing about and contending with betrayal, violence, and some hilarious misunderstandings. In my experience, at least, it's rare to find a story that's so unashamedly fun while not being at all painful to read. It evokes some of the tropes of "classic" science fiction only to show that we're not living in the 60s any more. It's modern with an engaging voice and brilliant vision of a future that might have its problems, but also seems like an incredible place to live. And it gets down into the muddy waters of duty and military, espionage and competing agendas. And Jedao is a soldier and spy not only because it allows him to pursue his interests across the stars, not only because he enjoys the work and the people he meets, but also because his is a system that affirms him and supports him, which makes it worth fighting for. 

Art by captblack76
"Can Anything Good Come" by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (The Dark)
Notes: Deep as myth, with a bold flavor that laughs in the face of darkness only to draw the taster down into a swirl of magic and nightmare.
Pairs with: Baltic Porter
Review: There's not really much to do when you're trying to save money and stuck in a rather boring posting in a strange village. The local people don't really trust you and you're mostly okay with that, content to get by until you can return to more familiar environs, but then your friend comes along and wheedles you into trying something new. Something curious. Something cheap. At least, that's the situation the main character of this story finds herself when her friend, Mercy, gets her to come alone to the nightmarket. It's a decision that the main character has a lot of time to regret, as just about everything that can go wrong on the way...does. And I love that it's not even really the promise of what the market offers that draws her on, but rather that with each new obstacle, with each new reason to turn back, she finds that she's already overcome so much. That the road to hell is paved with the promise of a good deal and traveled using the smallest of steps. It's a story that for me captures the feeling of being an outsider in a hostile place, where the only protection can be knowledge and yet knowledge is only gained by mindfulness and respect, not barging through demanding to be catered to. It's also a story with a great sense of fun even as it grows increasingly dangerous and terrifying. Through the main character it evokes the sensation of slowly sinking and only realizing when the water's rushing into your mouth that anything's the matter.

"The Revolution, Brought to You by Nike" by Andrea Phillips (Fireside Fiction)
Notes: Flaring a brilliant red on its pour, it attacks the palate with a rush of bitterness, a call for action, a need for justice, and then finishes with the reassuring and affirming sweetness of hope.
Pairs with: Red IPA
Review: When I think about where the revolution will start, I don't tend to think corporate America. I really don't tend to think about advertising and marketing. And the idea that resistance could be something able to be monetized is not only plausible (given the consumer nature of our culture and just how much we honor/revere brands and the making of money), it's rather brilliant. Especially as the story shows that what corporate advertising/media excels as it building movements. Yes, they tend to be to get people to buy a product, but when that product becomes revolution and disobedience to a government increasingly mired in scandal and corruption, the results are...interesting. And all this while building around Corazon, a woman in charge of the push to rebrand Nike and in doing so also maybe change the world. It's a story that lingers on ideas of social movements and revolutions, both in their power and in their fragility. The forces behind revolution are often huge things—injustice and corruption and attacks on civil liberty and fascism. The story shows the personal risks that Corazon takes, the way that she leverages her position to yes, seek to make money for her client, but also to strike upon and give form to a movement that was struggling to find a coherent voice. It shows the importance of mobilizing people, the importance of letting people hear each other, hear that they aren't alone. For Corazon it is something she believes in deeply, which is only more dangerous in corporate culture, where genuine belief seems to pale before messaging and branding. Hope, however, never goes out of style, and the story goes a great job of exploring just how powerful a message that can be.

Art by Adrian Borda
"Queen of Dirt" by Nisi Shawl (Apex)
Notes: Claustrophobic at times with an earthy sweetness, this story pours a cloudy gold with some deep shadows but an even more breathtaking light.
Pairs with: Honey Bock
Review: Brit is a teacher, both because she wants to be engaged in shaping young people and because she has a gift to give shape to the magical darkness of the world. She has the ability to condense and give solid form to the incorporeal threats out there. Not just as a visual (though fyi, the visuals in the story are fantastic and disturbing) but as a way to fight against them. To give them a form that can be attacked. That can be defeated. The story focuses on a single encounter that Brit navigates, through the story also builds a world that is tinged with danger and a magic that is in no ways tame or safe. And Brit is targeted by this magic, by forces that do not wish her well, and is confined by them. Paralyzed by them. They take away her voice in many ways, which is something that is very important to her. Something she's always refused to make more acceptable for the benefit of other people's comfort. She speaks in dialect and she knows herself. And, in the end, it is her refusal to conform that gives her a new power. That allows her to break through the barrier that were meant to contain her, that were meant to transform her into something she was repulsed by. It's a story that, to me, is about her ability to make visible the invisible, to force people to confront the societal forces trying to destroy her and her students. The forces that she defies in part by revealing them. It's a wonderful piece that, even through its darkest and most suffocating moments, fills its lungs with hope.

Art by Alan Bao
"Later, Let's Tear Up the Inner Sanctum" by A. Merc Rustad (Lightspeed)
Notes: Pleasantly drinkable until the undercurrent takes hold, until the darkness begins to encroach upon the world and blur the edges of what is wholesome and what is good and what is safe.
Pairs with: Black Lager
Review: Not all is as it seems in this superhero story that relies on a series of found texts, video testimonials and journal entries and interviews and security tapes. It's a story that makes thrilling and compelling use of visuals to compile its body of evidence, as the narrative becomes. It opens with a rush of fun and adoration, with the awe of seeing superheroes in action, and yet as time passes more and more comes to light that has been in the shadows. The nature of power gets examined, and just what defines superheroes gets questions—is it their heroism, or their superpowers. And if it is their powers, how much to they fall victim to the idea that power corrupts, and superpowers corrupt superly (or something...)? The story doesn't exactly follow just one character, but instead reveals a team of superheroes that the world considers their protectors. Who are supposed to be keeping people safe, but really are doing something much, much different. It's a story about betrayal and revenge. About wearing masks. And about how wearing masks can sometimes lead people to losing sight of what's in front of them and all around them. Masks offer especially poor peripheral vision, after all. And for the characters that emerge from this ever-deepening narrative, some uncomfortable revelations come to light with regards to the so-called protectors of the world, and the so-called destroyers of it as well. It's a story that builds with all the power and inevitability of a guillotine being raised. As the reality of everything sinks in, the question is never if the blade will fall, but when, and how bloody the crowd will get when it comes to rest at the bottom.

Shots

"Curiosity Fruit Machine" by S. Qiouyi Lu (Glittership)
Notes: Sweet and thick and full of a rising joy but hidden under an opaque surface that reveals nothing until the first taste.
Pairs with: a Fruit Rollup—a mix of equal parts cherry vodka, raspberry liqueur, cointreau, filled with cranberry juice.
Review: Two people participating in an archeological expedition at an ancient human settlement stumble across a strange device and can't help but gamble with their lives. This story is amazingly fun, crafting a world that is laced with potential darkness and potential dangers only to showcase the tendency that people have to push past all that and push the shiny button, or pull the shiny lever. The characters here play off each other so well, one of them more reserved and a font of information and the other one...well, insatiably curious. In many ways this is a story about found objects. It's about these people finding this...thing that they can't explain, and they know it must have some function but have no idea what it might be. And so the story comes down to what do they do. Rigorous testing? Perhaps they disassemble the machine to determine what it's made of and what it's potential threat is? Or they could just test the damn thing. And the nature of the object, increasingly obvious to readers, makes the story that much more enjoyable, that much more fitting. That these people are arguing about something that we know about, but that they have to go off of what they know historically and anthropologically about our time, our place, and once that get's worked in then it's really not just a safe bet anymore. And yet the characters keep pushing forward, exposing this tendency that we can have to push past the safe boundaries. To make leaps. To take chances. It's a fun and fast-paced story that flows with the spin of the wheel of fortunes. 


"We Are Still Feeling" by Karen Bovenmyer (The Sockdolager)
Notes: Dark through and through with a taste of smoke and ash and with a bite like the memory of fire and blood.
Pairs with: a Zombie Punch—a mix of equal parts light and dark rum and half measures lime juice and sweet sour mix with a dash of Angosutra Bitters and a teaspoon of grenadine, served corpse cold.
Review: Kummer is a woman who can control the bodies of people she has known, and she uses this ability in a total war with robots who want humanity wiped out and their legacy erased. The story opens in trauma-inducing fashion as Kummer is pinned down in a bunker, hoping that reinforcements will arrive before the robots compromise her position. It is an intense read, visceral from beginning to end, and it builds a dark and terrifying vision of this future. The aesthetic is immediately arresting, mixing kinda-zombines with killer machines in a fight to death where the only things that humanity can trust are in some way organic. The story examines the costs and the impact of this total war, though, against a foe that does not fear and does not compromise. Humanity has been pushed to a brink where they are forced to become in some ways mechanical. Where they are forced to become weapons. And yet even as they try to emulate their persecutors in order to survive, in order to push back against annihilation, they find that they cannot shed that which makes them human, that which makes them feeling. The story of Kummer is one of continual loss where she must resurrect people she's known who are dead to work as meat-puppets against her enemies, and yet she still feels what happens to them, still feels everything, and that takes a toll. Oh glob does it take a toll. It is a beautiful and rather unsettling story that doesn't flinch away from showing the violence of this conflict, nor the true damage that it does.

Art by Elizabeth Leggett
"Thursday in the Ice Fortress of Zelatharia the Terrible" by Sarah Crowe (Mothership Zeta)
Notes: A transfixing darkness reveals an experience is that rather quirky and sweet, making it seem like you've drank nothing at all even as the world starts to blur around you.
Pairs with: a Volcano—a mix of equal measures raspberry liqueur and blue curacao topped with champagne.
Review: Being a supervillain seems glamorous. Volcano bases. Superheroes to harass. Governments to threaten while laughing maniacally. A dream job in many ways (okay, for me at least, but don't judge). What is significantly less a dream job than supervillain, though? Henchperson. Underling. Lackey. Stooge. Unfortunately, for those with less-than-rosy work histories, working for a supervillain is fairly easy to get into, and fairly difficult to survive. I love the way that the story looks at corporate culture and how it resembles the villainy that we would otherwise associate with people wearing masks and twirling elaborate mustaches. For the main character, it's just something that they fell into, that they find they can't bring themself to pull out of. Not because they like it. Not because it even treats them decently. But because the prospect of searching for something better is so draining. It's the way that employment can certainly go. You start it, thinking that it's temporary, thinking that it's just something that you'll do until. Only the until gets pushed off more and more as the world around you seems to grow more hostile, as the bills and the worries mount. And that job that you thought was just something to do until becomes something you're doing until you die or retire. It becomes a career. And for the main character this is a mixed bag, because it shows that for all one's ideals and frustrations, there's something of a supervillain lurking in us all. That it doesn't really take that much for it to come out and participate in a system you always thought you'd never give in to. It's a fun piece, too, full of ridiculous situations and wonderful humor. 

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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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