Friday, April 14, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 03/2017


It's a new beginning for The Monthly Round, for a number of reasons. The first is, I've finally gotten around to making a graphic for it! Gaze at the wonder that is my graphic design skills (better known as: I probably like playing around in Photoshop too damn much). I've tried to capture the feel for the series/column/whatever as best I good, with stars and a wizard hat and a creepy little accidental face. In short, I hope you enjoy it.

But that's not the only reason why this is a new beginning for The Monthly Round. Regulars have perhaps noticed that over the past few months I've been experimenting with the format of my reviews. I think I finally have something that I like. At the same time, as much as I like having a shot to accompany most anything, I think it's best to focus on just the main six selections for the Tasting Flight. I will still be including at least one flash fiction story in my selections each month, but I'm otherwise going to discontinue my Shots reviews.

And all right, business out of the way, welcome to the March edition of the Round! Come in out of the void and shake the star-stuff from your jacket. Let me pour you something. Know what you're in the mood for, or maybe you'll let me show you what's on tap this month. It's a mix of a little bit of everything, from sweeping science fiction to devastating horror to inspiring fantasy. No matter what you're in the mood for, you're sure to find something to enjoy this month so sit down, relax, and let's begin.

Tasting Flight - March 2017

Art by Sandro Castelli
"The Cold, Lonely Waters" by Aimee Ogden (Shimmer)
Notes: You’d think this would be best served cold, but the real treat of this drink, which opens to smokey and rich flavors of cocoa and vanilla, is that it only really comes out of its shell at room temperature, like a traveler pushing through the ink dark to find a warm hearth and the hope of new friends.
Pairs with: Vanilla Porter
Review: This story features mermaids in space. Mermaids. In. Space. Even a month later I am still delighted by that simple premise and the gorgeous way that the story unfolds. It imagines this great sphere made of glass and full of water, this incredibly delicate construct with three mermaids inside, three explorers looking to reach out to another world (or a moon anyway) for signs of life. For signs that they aren’t alone in the galaxy. The piece circles around the mysterious disappearance of humans on Earth even as the main character, a mermaid ill suited to the cold reaches of space, deals with the conditions. It’s a story that to me looks at the nature of isolation, looks at the tendency that we have to want to reach out and find someone else there. The mermaids were not treated well by the humans, not really, and yet the absence is like a wound, and though there are definitely dissenters among the mermaids the decision is still made to travel through space in hopes of finding company among the stars. It is not the happiest of reads, though, for all that it is breathtaking in its scope and execution. The action is at many times tragic and difficult, and there’s a heaviness to the piece, a weight from all the expectations and hope that the main character carries into the dark. It’s ultimately a very hopeful story, though, that reaches past the fear of failure, loneliness, and pain, and toward a warmth of belonging and community.

"It Happened To Me: I Melded My Consciousness With the Giant Alien Mushroom Floating Above Chicago" by Nino Cipri (Fireside Fiction)
Notes: With flavors of earth and air mingling in this strange, dark brew, the experience doesn't seem intense at first, but the more you consume the more you find yourself unable to put it down.
Pairs with: Shiitake Brown Ale
Review: There is a giant space mushroom floating over Chicago. And okay, yes, some people freaked out a bit at first. But, eh, it's Chicago, and as long as it doesn't mess with their commute it's no big deal. At least, it isn't for the main character of this story, until the episodes start. I love the framing of this series of stories, which take the form of confessionals you might find in some less-than-legit newsstand papers or on television on specials with names like "Bigfoot is my baby's daddy." And I love the way this story in particular shows how people can normalize so much weird in their life. So much that should make them turn and run but that once they've taken the first few steps it's nearly impossible to break away. And the story is about bridges, about a slow encroachment, about the ways that communing with a giant space mushroom might actually not be a bad thing because hear me out for a second. And I love that, the sly humor of the piece while at the same time there's something deeper going on here. That the main character has been chosen for this but maybe because they were desperate for connection in community, that even in a city of millions they were alone and vulnerable and the space mushroom offered them a way out of that. It's a story that mixes horror and fantasy because it seems to ask (for me, at least) if the space mushroom is any more nefarious or frightening than any other group out there that seems exploitative or suspect. We live in a world that so often seeks to exploit our need for comfort and understanding, and in that world this mushroom might not be so bad. It might beautiful, even, and if it isn't then this story certainly is.

Art by ilonareny
"You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych" by Kathleen Kayembe (Nightmare)
Notes: Ethereal and ghostly and pouring a pale, clear yellow, the bracing and citrusy nose yields to a subtle bitterness that seems on the edge of transcendence. 
Pairs with: White IPA
Review: Revealing the ways that loss and pain and grief can feed the fear of the different, can feed superstition and in turn violence, this story spaces itself over three sections and three characters all effected by a single rash action in the past. It begins most distant from that event, though, creating a mysterious and rather Gothic feel by having Izzy, a young woman trying to look after her uncle, a professor of stories and folklore. There's a forbidden room in his house, a missing son, and a fear in the uncle that creates at atmosphere of dread and anticipation. As the piece dives into the next character, Mbuyi, the missing son who turns out to be not so missing after all. The mystery of the forbidden room is revealed, as well as what the uncle is so afraid of, but the pains and betrayals go much deeper than that, and I love how the story adds layers to the narrative with each section, truly creating a triptych that, when complete, paints a vivid and complete picture of this situation, of this family. Which is what I feel the story is about. Family. The way that families can fracture and break and become abusive because a child is different. That by treating difference like a disease, like a wrong, it traps everyone in a sort of hell, unable to move forward and unable to heal and unable to fix anything because the real problem isn't the difference but the fear and hatred people respond to that difference with. The story reveals the tragedy of this family, made more harrowing and sad because it was completely avoidable, because very little of it had to happen. And yet once the first stone began rolling downhill it created an avalanche that devastates so much. Even so, the story does maintain a level of hope. Not to undo the harm done, but to prevent the avalanche from claiming even more. It looks at forgiveness and regret, violence and family, and it does it with a twist of horror and fantasy.

"Terra Nullius" by Hanuš Seiner, translated by Julie Nováková (Strange Horizons)
Notes: A strange and almost alien exterior gives way to an experience that is strangely salty and dark without being claustrophobic, opening up to reveal a surprisingly sweet finish.
Pairs with: Oyster Stout
Review: I've never read a story of alien invasion quite like this one, where the threat to humanity so closely mirrors one of the things that has allowed humans to become the dominant species on Earth—adaptivity. The invading force is able to create artificial worlds to help their offspring adapt to the very specific conditions of the worlds they arrive at, so that generation over generation they are able to overcome almost any obstacle. As adults, though, the aliens are static, rigid. The story explores how the environment they are raised in comes to define them, and how any chance at mediation or change has to start there, by reaching into those worlds that are supposed to exist only for teaching violence and colonization and trying something else instead. It's a beautiful story that shows just how difficult it can be to try and negotiate and coexist with people who have been raised to think a very rigid set of beliefs, who have been prepared and isolated since they were children to believe certain things, to promote certain kinds of violence and imperialism. It's a shocking piece that shows just how much it makes reality itself seem unstable, inconstant. How that level of manipulation and reality-curating can have huge effects even for those who don't subscribe to that vision of reality. And yet it manages to get to the heart and hope of this conflict, this war that's going on all over the story. That the key to avoiding human extinction is compassion and empathy and breaking through the isolation that allows these children to be turned into killers. That instead of continuing the narrative of inevitable war and violence the sides need to put their fear and aggression aside and work together toward a future they can all inhabit.

Art by breakermaximus
"If We Survive the Night" by Carlie St. George (The Dark)
Notes: Pouring the color of blood in the water and with a soft white head that could be mistaken for purity, there is a sweetness that lies over a more complex and fiery flavor.
Pairs with: Red Ale
Review: Horror, like many genres, can sometimes be defined by its tropes. No where is this so clear than in one of the stalwarts of horror—the slasher. Whether on the page or, perhaps more memorably, on screen, slasher stories are all about violence and virtue. The feature a Chosen girl who is going to survive in part because she's Good enough to. Everyone else? Well… This story takes direct aim at slasher tropes and populates a house full of dead girls. Dead women. People who were too queer or too brown or too sex-positive or did drugs or didn't aspire to be the Good girl. The story swirls around these women as they reenact the same things every day—breakfast, some weird shit with angels, and oh yeah, being brutally murdered every night. It's a disturbing and wrenching premise that delivers on the horror but doesn't keep its distance, doesn't limit itself to the comforts of staying within the tropes. Instead it brings those tropes kicking and screaming into the light to try and reveal why they exist and what they are saying. The women all must live trying to figure out why they died, why they've been trapped in this hell, all the while these angels tell them to repent, that it's somehow within their power to escape, if only they'd…something. The result is a nightmarish place where the women turn on each other more than anything, so in pain that it takes them a while to realize that they do have the power to escape, just not in the way they're being told. The story is about taking back space and a voice, taking back a narrative that has been so twisted and poisoned that it seems impossible. And yet the piece manages to bring something almost redemptive out of the slasher tropes—the deconstruction of them. It's a harrowing and uncomfortable read but it is also amazingly crafted and hits like a well placed axe to the sternum.

"Suddenwall" by Sara Saab (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Notes: Pouring the color of packed earth with a touch of gold, the first taste seems almost simple and open until the complexity of the spices and zest set in, balancing the experience with a dense, almost mournful profile.
Pairs with: Abbey Ale
Review: In many ways Panette and Harvei have survived a war. Only it was never exactly a war and there are many ways that people can be alive without exactly surviving. Both women were pulled into the conflict for different reasons, Panette because she thought it was right, Harvei because she didn't have a better choice. There were clear lines and things seemed simple. Except they weren't. The story doesn't flinch away from tackling complicity and the complexity of violence and genocide. Both characters were part of a successful campaign to wipe out a people and a language. And both lived through that only to find that while they were away the nation they were presumably fighting for had a change of heart. And in order to avoid the guilt and shame of what had happened, the soldiers were all cast out into a new city, one with a morality of its own, one that would exile or kill any who broke its rules. Years after the war, Panette and Harvei have drifted apart despite an intimacy they had during the conflict. They are reunited only when the city rejects Harvei, and the old wounds and guilt and shame come flooding back. The story does a wonderful job of showing how violence and bigotry get into people, how they twist and corrupt. And it shows the uncomfortable reality of dealing seeing the pain of the soldiers left behind in the wake of genocide but not being able to see their victims, those erased by the campaign they were a part of. It shows what happens when people try to give up their ability to see right and wrong, when they rely on someone or something else to make their moral decisions. It shows how there can be no real healing without facing what has been done and learning from it, not just changing policy so that it doesn't happen specifically (by protecting just the one victimized group) but changing the way people live and think so that the same thing can't happen generally, so that people don't blindly follow. It's a tragic story not just because of how it plays out but because of how it reflects how we so often stop at treating the symptoms of intolerance rather than trying to get at the root of the problem.

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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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