Friday, June 16, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 05/2017


 Welcome back! You look tired. Our ongoing dystopia got you down? Well I can’t say I have a cure for what ails you, but I do think I might have something that will take the edge off. Six stories, hand selected as my favorite pieces of short SFF from May 2017. These are stories that inspire and soothe, that provoke and unsettle, but there’s a beauty in all of them, and a strength as well.

June seems to have put me in the mind of settings that drag at a person, that try to push them down. Most of the stories in this month’s flight feature worlds—cities, planets, houses, closets—that oppress. And so they feature characters dealing with worlds that let them down, something I’m sure most people can relate to. How those characters react to that disappointment, to that injustice, is what makes the stories beautiful and fortifying. These are works of art that can inspire us to reach out in kindness to those in need, and in righteousness against those who would seek to use systems of oppression to exploit the vulnerable.

So sit down and shake off what burden you can. Let me pour you something...

Tasting Flight - May 2017

“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Notes: The first impression is dominated by a pour like molasses and a strange, otherworldly aroma that breaks into flavors of hope underscored by hardship, strength that cannot be crushed, but cannot be truly free.
Pairs with: Barleywine
Review: Zee was made with a particularly good spring, one that allows them more turns than average—turns that must be used to complete actions, to do work, to travel, to live. It’s something that gives Zee hope when they are young, when they seem to be able to do so much, and the world seems open. And yet as they age and partner and have a child and that child has a spring that can’t handle many turns, that hopeful optimism transforms into something else. This story is dominated by the presence and absence both of the maker of the clockwork people who inhabit this world, this closet. Things are designed and yet things are not fair—if anything they keep most people barely getting by, looking out for themselves. The feeling they have as children that they can change the world, that they can even change their fates, is one that comes crashing down under the weight of what they must do, their burdens and responsibilities. It’s a wrenching story that takes a close look at ability and care, sacrifice and what makes life worth living. It’s tender and heartbreaking, revealing a system that’s broken and the reality that true reform is impossible while everyone refuses to use their turns for others. There is such love in the story, and care, and moments of relief and joy, but at its core, to me, it is a tragedy, albeit one that reveals something beautiful. Zee’s story is the story of many people who find they have to give up so much of themselves in order to do what is right by others, who give and give and give because the system is not built to support its people and so stigmatizes disability and places the burden of care solely on those who care about those with fewer turns, and rewards those who don’t care.

“They Will Take You From You” by Brandon O’Brien (Strange Horizons)
Notes: A nose of citrus and sunrise burn with a bitter fire, revealing a taste like banishing doubt, like a painting of reds and oranges and yellows, colors of heat and hope that cannot be contained.
Pairs with: Double IPA
Review: The Benefactors are aliens who have arrived on Earth in order to cultivate art. To encourage humans to create beauty and meaning and complexity. But they are also there to own that art, and even more than that, to own the artist after their death. The main character of the story is living in this world touched by these alien beings who seem to be collecting a lot of geniuses all at once. People mourn as geniuses are taken, and what’s more than that, images of some of those geniuses are beginning to appear, showing black geniuses bleached white. It is a shocking and dark beginning to a story that revolves around art and ownership, around the idea of benefactors and cultural imperialism. The main character is an artist himself, raised by his grandmother, who might or might not be a genius. Who gets recognized, after all, is still very much a question of race and privilege, and many geniuses are never acknowledged during their lives, only when they die and the Benefactors arrive to take the bodies. The story swirls around this, the way that great artists are consumed by the dominant cultures, by the colonizers, their art twisted to fit a narrative that benefits those who were often instrumental in exploiting and oppressing the artists. The feelings that the main character feels toward the Benefactors are complex, and part of the question is how much the Benefactors actually help. They claim to make geniuses, and yet the main character wonders how much of this way of thinking erases the human genius at work in art. That the Benefactors might give a bit of help at a key moment, but that it shouldn’t mean they have ownership of the artists, and by extension their art. It’s a story of mystery and doubt, violence and art, and it provides a startling and fascinating look at how art and artists are often colonized and redefined after their deaths to provide comfort to those they meant to provoke.

Art by Sam Schechter
"The Heart's Cartography" by Susan Jane Bigelow (Lightspeed)
Notes: Bright and with a lifting fizz that brings a smile even as the deep taste and intricate layers form a ladder of flavor to a better place, one crystal clear and golden.
Pairs with: Belgian Ale
Review: Jade is a young transwoman living in the shade of nature, in the expanse of a large forest, which serves as her refuge in a world that, while not always outwardly violent, is still far from being truly accepting or affirming. When another family moves in who just happen to be time travelers, Jade makes friends with one of them, a young girl named Sally. And in a story that has a great vision of what time travel could be, the real crux of the piece is friendship and acceptance and the power that comes from having control over your own story. For Jade and Sally both, the world isn’t exactly what they want it to be. Sally is constantly moving, constantly being forced to give up her homes, her friends. And Jade is constantly reminded of the ways that she doesn’t fit in, the ways that she is alone. I love the way the story makes this difference between loneliness and setting, though. Jade’s isolation is not in that she lives in a less populated area. She doesn’t want to move to a city, and being on her own in the woods isn’t a terrifying prospect. Instead, her loneliness comes from having no one to share the space with, no one to really understand her or interact with her. Until Sally. The two find in each other exactly what they were missing, and yet their time together seems doomed because of the nature of Sally’s family. Through it all, though, the story maintains a charming voice and a heartwarming sincerity that speaks of hope and acceptance even in a sea of uncertainty.

Art by Galen Dara
“Read Before Use” by Chinelo Onwualu (Uncanny)
Notes: Sharp like betrayal and tinged with the tastes of metal and blood, the flavor sinks and rises, flashing with joy and resilience while remaining bittersweet and complex.
Pairs with: Red IPA
Review: Satelight City runs on free energy designed by builders long dead, whose technology works despite the current population not really understanding how. At least, it’s been working up until recently. And really, there is one person who might not know how the technology works, but does have a good idea on where to look to find out. Alia is a scholar and teacher from a foreign land, a fact that makes her an outsider in a city ruled by a tight cadre of aristocratic psions. Despite her credentials and achievements being impeccable, her position is in jeopardy and in order to gain some security she needs to do what no one else has done—find the key to fixing the failing technology that allows Satelight City to exist inside a dome. And the story does a great job of showing how this city forces those born outside the ruling elite to compete with each other, betray each other all in an attempt to get what scraps are offered. That the city lives under a dome and with seemingly unlimited energy are things that some might think would lead to utopian conditions, but what the story shows is that corruption and tyranny can find a way. That it’s not enough to have plenty. That what’s really at stake here is power, and people like Alia find themselves continually running after approval in order to be safe, in order to be allowed to stay, to study, and to live. Outside of the psions, the conditions of the city might be better than outside the city dome, but only enough to motivate people to hold to what they have and not question the demands of the psions. It’s a tightly paced adventure of a story with twists and turns, victories that turn to ashy defeats. Alia is someone with power inside of her, with the ability to use fire magic, and yet even that becomes a liability because the psions fear those with power outside of their control, and the tragedy of the story is that ability and potential are squandered, knowledge lost, because the system does not truly care about merit, only upholding the status of the psions.

“The Stars that Fall” by Samantha Murray (Flash Fiction Online)
Notes: With a pour like searching the night sky and a taste nearly sweet and nearly terrifying, the profile built is one of vast distance and bold intimacy.
Pairs with: Black Lager
Review: Everyone has a death, and it’s waiting for them in space. A small rock that will fall as a meteor and take them, obliterate them. For the main character of the story, this is something of a horror, to know that this might happen at any moment, to have seen it happen to old and young alike. For their friend Sara, though, it’s exciting, and the two of them spend a lot of time together looking up at the mass of rocks, searching for their death. The story unfolds in an isolation where the main character pursues this interest not because they’re incredibly into it but because it gets them close to Sara. That closeness offers comfort but also danger, the possibility that it might all come unraveling. The way the story builds these rocks in space, each one engraved with a name, is interesting and almost morbid. But I also love that not many people care about looking up. They all want to keep their attention on the ground, on what’s going on around them. Partly this is healthy, because it stops them from being fixated on that one point, the unknown death. Partly, though, it’s also rather careless, because there are things to learn from the sky, as the main character discovers. And what they learn provokes them to take chances that they might not have, to try and build something before it’s too late. The story becomes about living in the shadow of something but not being defined by it, not being limited by it. Because in many ways we all live under shadows, under the reassurances of our mortality, and yet in the face of that we create beauty and life and laughter. Things that are ephemeral and temporary but also things that are worth fighting for, worth living for.

“Bear Language” by Martin Cahill (Fireside Fiction)
Notes: Notes of sweet honey bring light to to a pour dark brown like matted fur, like damp wood, like a home that is no longer safe, and delivers a balanced and rich flavor that lingers on the tongue.
Pairs with: Honey Bock
Review: Joanna and Oliver are staying with their father while their mother deals with a family emergency. At least, that’s the story they are told. Meanwhile, they have something of an emergency of their own to contend with when a bear walks through an open door into the house and the three humans retreat upstairs, to a room defined by the fear of the children and the slowly crumbling psyche of the father. I love the way the story contrasts the father and the bear. The bear, who is so patient and who Joanna can communicate with, who begins to teach Joanna the language of bears and the proper ways a parent watches over their child. Meanwhile the alcoholism and abuse present in the father become more and more apparent, and his treatment of the his children makes the story toe the line between fantasy and horror. Between bear and man, it’s not difficult to tell which is beastly and which is civilized, the bear offering for Joanna and Oliver some measure of protection and control, though it’s also not really an ideal situation. But the story examines how this family tries to fit together and might ultimately fall apart. It doesn’t flinch away from the anger of the father and the toxic masculinity that he showcases, the need to threaten and dominate to hide his own lack of control—in the situation with the bear but also larger than that, in the way he doesn’t control his drinking or his relationships. The story shows how Joanna learns to stand up against the shadow of her father and show a fierceness that she, and he, didn’t know she had. It doesn’t erase the damage done, or even really fix what’s been broken, but it does leave room for hope that the harm will not continue, that freedom and security are still possible.

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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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