Friday, July 14, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 06/2017

Welcome back to the watering hole for all things speculative! Given the heat, I’d suggest maybe drinking a glass or two of water before we begin, just to make sure you stay properly hydrated throughout the tasting. Can’t be too careful...

Summer certainly rules the landscape, though, with temperatures breaking records, melting street signs, grounding planes, and more. So step up the bar and have a look at all the lovely flavors on tap. The Round this month is designed to refresh and invigorate while providing a balanced, complex experience. There’s a great representation of stories that will bring a smile to your face, that will feel like a cool breeze on sun-stressed skin. But there are other ways to beat the heat. Some of these stories are a patch of dense shadow, a cool oasis that offers a completely different feel than those bathed in light. It might just be that after a little while in those deeper darks that the sun will come as a relief and not a weight.

From science fiction stories set in the far future to fantasy tales that imagine completely different worlds, I tried to select flavors that would compliment and complicate each other. The themes of loss and yearning, control and bodies, run like streams through these pieces, connecting them and drawing the reader ever onward, toward a sunset tinged in sorrow, hope, and joy. I hope you enjoy. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - June 2017

Art by Sparrows
“The Waters and Wild of Winter Street” by Jessi Cole Jackson (Book Smugglers)
Notes: At times candy sweet but with a smokiness that complicates and soothes the palate, the pour is an inky dark that seems almost devoid of hope until the first sip, when despair cannot stand against the arrival of hope.
Pairs with: Chocolate Bock
Review: Geoffrey and Matt are a couple who is fortunate enough to adopt very young twin girls, who seem identical at first and yet, as they age, reveal the differences between them in stark, funny, and heartbreaking fashion. Moira and Mystique are sisters first, though they couldn’t be more different in personality—Moira is bright and sunny, at home in fluffy dresses and excited to connect with other people while Mystique is...a bit strange, far more mature than others her age and with a seriousness and gaze that seems to see through the pleasantries people use to cover the truth. For all of the differences, though, the story explores what makes these girls sisters, and what makes Moira and Mystique, Geoffrey and Matt, work as a family. It’s a story that revels in small details, very intimate scenes of growing up, of raising daughters but also of being those daughters, of meeting a world that isn’t often fair, that isn’t often kind. Much of the focus is on what makes Mystique different from her sister and the rest of her family, and where the origin of those differences springs from. And I love what it does with that twist, how it brings into focus the ways that families sometimes seek to make deals for each other, try to protect one another, but only when pulling together, only when trusting one another, can they truly overcome the forces trying to break them apart. It’s a heartwarming story that delivers all the warm fuzzies and might even have brought a tear to my eye.

Art by Galen Dara
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny)
Notes: Bleeding and bitter and caught between a multitude of different worlds, different sensations, the pour is a cloudy red, age and blood and the hint of wood like a stake to the heart.
Pairs with: Red Rye IPA
Review: All Finley wants to do is take a piss and maybe find someone to hook up with when he’s attacked behind a bar and wakes up dying instead, thanks to the careless bite of a vampire. What follows is an increasingly complex story that examines bodies and change, transitions and betrayals, as Finley finds that being a vampire transman isn’t really a common thing, nor one smiled on by the rest of society, even if vampires themselves are regulated and allowed a certain degree of freedom. The world building of the piece is interesting and deep, vampires welcomed to come out into the open but also regulated so that they can’t drink blood directly. The entire story becomes about the ways that various transformations allow some emancipations while also bringing some losses, and for Finley, tired and frustrated at never being able to just be what he wants without extra work and sacrifice, the experience forces him to come to terms with a changing body all over again, with all the terrors and hope that goes with it. And the relationship between Finley and Andreas is instantly messed up and compelling, Andreas full of confidence built not just from an incredibly long life but from being a cisman, acting without considering what it might mean for Finley, assuming that because the move from human to vampire went smoothly for himself, he’s ready to help Finley through what comes next. Only what comes next is messy and visceral and vulnerable and angry, and it just works together so well, painting a portrait of Finley in all his complex glory.

Art by Sandro Castelli
“We Lilies of the Valley” by Sonja Natasha (Shimmer)
Notes: Full of void and distance, the darkness of the pour is omnipresent yet clear, letting light shine through for a ultimately uplifting and enchanting experience.
Pairs with: Dark Lager
Review: Yvonne has been sent to live on a space station, connected to Earth only by social media and regular care packages. Behind her she’s left her life on hold, except for a new relationship with Sierra, a woman she met just before she left. The story is a slow and achingly beautiful peek into their relationship and into Yvonne’s isolation from Earth. She’s there on the space station for study and research, and yet when she plants something she should probably have sent back for analysis, a sort of magic takes place. I love how the story mixes fantasy and science fiction, revealing this deep loneliness that Yvonne feels because of her isolation, because she is physically so far removed from Earth. For all that, though, she’s not alone. And the seed she plants, against all odds, begins to grow. And Yvonne is sustained by this strange new plant—it becomes what grounds her during this exile that she endures, and it’s what links her to Sierra, because despite the distance, the magic of the plant seems to be growing inside both of them. It’s a lovely way to show the effect that love can have on people, the way that long distance relationships can be affirming and transcending, cutting through the vast gulfs of space and uniting people based on their mutual need, their mutual hope and care. The prose is slow and beautiful, and the story as a whole is like a flower just coming into bloom, mysterious and sublime. It allows the characters to grow together and bloom together, entwined even though worlds apart.

Art by Rachel Khan
“Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons)
Notes: The brash combinations of melon and citrus are almost an assault, a nose full of strange, syrupy note, and yet as the drink breathes it matures, showing a hidden depth and a captivating intensity.
Pairs with: Watermelon Lime Ale
Review: Kit is a sort-of welcome wagon to the future for humans who have been thawed out of cryogenic freeze in order to reintegrate into human society. Only human society has...changed a bit since Charlie went to sleep. First and mostly, most humans now exist solely in artificial space, throwing their consciousnesses through different environments and situations, different games and challenging, expanding and contracting as they see fit, as their whims and desires take them. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess), humanity leaves all the logistics of that up to the Allocator, an advanced AI that is nonetheless constrained by some key rules with regards to what it can do to obtain resources for to fabricate these artificial worlds. It’s a strange situation that Charlie finds himself stepping into, and with Kit’s (very enthusiastic) help, he starts taking his first steps into integrating with this new humanity. He tries out the games. He finds what he might enjoy and what he definitely does not enjoy, and slowly he begins to acclimate, thanks in large part to Kit and their constant stream-of-consciousness explanations and diversions. The story mixes style and substance to great effect, building this strange and beautiful and actually-rather-tragic future without condemning humanity for its move into the “artificial.” There is purpose and meaning here, but real human connection is much rarer, and so the relationship between Kit and Charlie is a charming one and a generational one, and not just in the obvious way. Charlie might seem like the old curmudgeon at first and Kit the flighty ADHD youth, but as the story moves a different dynamic immerges, and by the end those first impressions are twisted and subverted. It’s a story about the possibility of humanity, and the power of kindness and enthusiasm, and it’s a weird, fun, delightful read.

“Of Letters They Are Made” by Jonathan Edelstein (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Notes: With a taste of dust and old pages, low fires and warm hearths, this story unfolds like a map whose layers can be peeled away, revealing older and older hurts even as it uncovers new and powerful truths.
Pairs with: Abbey Ale
Review: Taharah is a magician, someone who is able to both capture stories and release them as sensory experiences that can dazzle, entertain, teach, and inspire. And Taharah is living in a city at the crossroads of the world, a city that has been remade time and again following disaster, invasion, and erasure. They are seeking in this city connections to their own past and heritage, broken links that, if repaired, could allow them to reclaim stories that have been lost for ages, that might give them a stronger sense of where they came from, a deeper connection to the land, their ancestors, and the world at large. It’s a story that is preeminently concerned with stories, with translation, with the cultural importance of having texts and the devastation that can come from having those texts destroyed, those stories lost. There is so much of a people in the stories they tell, and when those stories are suppressed, when the only stories about a people are told from the outside looking in, then the identity of those people is damaged. They lose a bit of themselves, and pointedly so, as this kind of cultural warfare is all too common. And I love how Taharah’s work brings them into contact with all manner of people, and how they shape their very family around stories and around hope, seeking to bridge the gaps that war and loss have made in history and culture. It’s a tragic story, about the way that grief and injustice can build up, but it’s also about the way that they can be healed from. The way that they can be resisted and pushed back against. The story that Taharah casts is not a very happy one, but it’s full of power and hope, resilience and love.

Art by Dario Bijelac
“Water like Air” by Lora Gray (Flash Fiction Online)
Notes: Opening up with a nose of seafoam and deep forest, this piece pours a rich amber, a greedy gold, with a taste like yearning and unfulfilled dreams a thirst that is never quite quenched.
Pairs with: Bitter Ale
Review: Regret and yearning mingle in this story that finds Tom an aging widower and Elodia a naiad, a being of water and tragedy. Both have hungers that cannot be sated—Tom for more time with his dead wife, for more life that could never be enough, and Elodia for a way to cut through her own loneliness, to sate the hunger that is more complex than her sister, who lures young men to their deaths in the water. Elodia wants more, and seeks more, something with a bit of permanence to it, something less liquid and more solid. And yet she cannot truly escape her nature, no more than Tom can turn back time and capture some of the feeling from when he and his wife for together. The loneliness in both of them is something tangible, something that both characters are drowning in, and so both seek in the other a release, a way through the despair and darkness and toward something better. Only because of their natures, because they are not looking into each other but rather through and past each other, toward the thing they want but cannot have or touch, they find no lasting peace or fulfillment. Theirs is a fiction, an illusion. Elodia must create herself in an image that is not her own, and because of that she is not seen, not appreciated. It’s not her that Tom reaches for, and so the flavor of their joining is tainted, wanting. The darkness of the piece is deep and muddy—appropriate for the way that Elodia must reshape herself to walk on the land—and the prose oozes with a bleak hope that flickers on, always on the verge of going out.


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