Friday, November 17, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 10/2017


First of all, let’s just say Happy Birthday to the Monthly Round, which turns three years old with this installment, debuting in the Long Ago of November 2014 (covering the short SFF of October 2014). Free party hats for all!

October. For me, it means a lot of things. Typically, the first snow of the year happens. There's Halloween, with its long shadows and spooky revelry. For many, the month probably means autumn and gorgeous colors, but for me it means the first touch of winter, and the heat kicking on, and the shutting away of the world in an effort to conserve warmth. It means the tastes on tap today have a definite slide toward the dark side. We start with light, and happiness, and hope, and we end with a wrenching bleakness, a facing of difficult realities. In between is a powerful month of short SFF, full of magic, stars, and strangeness.

Sit down. There’s a chill settling in, but a drink might shake a bit of fire into your limbs. Settle in and watch the pour with anticipation. Then, enjoy. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - October 2017
Art by Ashley Mackenzie
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny)
Tasting Notes: A surprising tang gives this a punch of sweetness that almost overpowers with its joy, settled only by the complexity of its profile and the lingering smiles it leaves in its wake.
Pairs with: Peach Hard Cider
Review: Computron has a fairly ordinary job...for the only sentient AI in existence. He teaches kids about robots and artificial intelligence, something that he’s rather singularly qualified to do. Only it really doesn’t seem like people consider him the marvel that he is, judging him on the retro-futurist aesthetic he has, imagining he’s outdated despite his uniqueness, despite the fact that he’s sentient. It’s not until he finds a show that features a character much like himself, an older-style robot named Cyro, that he begins to understand just how much he was yearning to see himself represented in media, to interact with other people who won’t think he’s strange because of the way he looks. Enter fandom. I love how this story explores the ways that fan spaces allow people to explore and celebrate themselves. No, fandom isn’t perfect, and Computron does have to deal with aspects of that, but at the same time it gives him this new purpose, this new feeling of belonging. Where he doesn’t have to fit all he has to say into a tiny window inside a larger presentation on robotics. Where he can really get into something and be appreciated for it and make connections through it and shatter the isolation that had dominated his life. It’s a story about being a fan, and how fun and freeing that can be. The story revels in Computron’s journey into fandom, writing fic and offering feedback and just being an all around pleasant person. And it’s a joyous story to experience, clever and cute and playing with the tropes of how AI mirror humans, but how they are distinct as well, and valuable in how they are different, able to contribute in ways that are surprising and wonderful.

Art by Geneva Benton
“Barbara in the Frame” by Emmalia Harrington (Fiyah)
Tasting Notes: With a nose like fresh baked goods and a rich copper pour, the taste is sweet but complex, a tugging disquiet that gives way to a positive warmth and the feeling of home.
Pairs with: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ale
Review: For many, college is a freeing experience, a time of freedom and exploration. For Bab, though, a young trans woman who already had a bad college experience once, going back has been difficult, even if being in the correct dorms has been a huge improvement. The fear of being “found out” and rejected is strong, and coupled with anxiety and a few other issues, it means Bab is something of a hermit, staying in her room where her main company is a portrait of her grandfather’s great-aunt, Barbara. Which might seem very lonely indeed, except that it’s a very special portrait. The story blends magic and navigating the strange and obscure social landscape of college. For Bab, it means experiencing the push and pull of wanting friends but not wanting to expose herself to danger. Of needing connections and community and fearing that she’ll never truly belong. The story does an amazing job of capturing the voices of a solid cast and finding powerful resonance in situations that might seem at first low stakes. Because it shows how Bab can take nothing for granted, how her world sometimes feels like it’s closing in around her, and how it can take a friendly face and a reassuring presence to make the world a less painful place. Plus, well, it’s a story that combines magic and cooking, bringing people together by the foods they cook, by the ways they each bring something different to the experience, to the meal, in order to create a feeling of completeness, safety, and belonging. It’s a quieter kind of story, but one that shines with an indomitable heart.

Art by Dario Bijelac
“Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow (Flash Fiction Online)
Tasting Notes: Strong and with a taste of the ocean, the pour is an inky oblivion, an impenetrable cloud in which anything might lurk, but which reveals slowly a soft texture, a tenderness only seen in hindsight, only experienced after everything has been bathed in dark.
Pairs with: Oyster Stout
Review: Some stories take a long time to lay the groundwork for devastation. To map it fully and without blinking. Others, like this one, manage with the broad strokes of memory and pain, the absence of a person who, for the main character, was everything. And okay, I might have a soft spot in my heart for stories that in some ways are built as reviews that might or might not actually exist, fleshing out a world and, more importantly, a relationship by the way the narrator describes what these stories meant. It’s a piece that seems quiet, reserved, and yet that packs the emotional punch of a freight train, driving relentlessly around the space once occupied by Allie, now empty. It’s a story of layers and time and grief, each story pulling back another veil, revealing more and more of what has happened and what it has meant for Claire. Framing the stories around stories is a great touch, too, because it looks at the power of fiction in these situations. Not only to draw the boundaries of despair and give that feeling of lurking danger, each story mentioned one of monsters, after all, and darkness. But it also allows a framework to begin to heal, to allow Claire the power to begin to conceive of a world that is better. To reach for a place where she no longer feels quite so much pain. Where she can continue, and where perhaps she can be reunited with Allie, or at least find some way to cope with what has happened. It’s a short but elegant read that opens up this huge hurt but also the even larger power of speculative fiction to give hope, to inspire. It centers the power of imagination as a redemptive impulse in humans, to use to navigate life’s travails and find a course to a better future.

Art by Tomislav Tikulin
“The Whalebone Parrot” by Darcie Little Badger (The Dark)
Tasting Notes: There’s a distinct ghostly quality to the feel of this, the pour a gold leeched of vibrance, the taste an echo of something bright dulled to bitter, everything about it reaching for a light and hope that seems ethereal, cold, and distant.
Pairs with: Pale Ale
Review: Erasure and family and colonial harm mix and mingle here as Emily—a young woman who grew up in an orphanage that stripped her of her Native American heritage, name, and language and tried to make her acceptable for the white society that consumed her land—visits her sister, Loretta, who is about to give birth to her first child. The story captures a nicely Gothic style, setting up the isolation and distance and haunted nature of place that Emily must inhabit. Her sister is married to a white man, supposedly liberal, and yet for all his kindness his world is defined by his language, that of empire and white dominance, and his view toward his wife and her sister is hardly free of either misogyny or racism. Instead he is an Intellectual, burdened by his own family issues and sure that those thorny problems of inheritance and pride supplant the very real dangers that Emily and Loretta face from a source he refuses to recognize. The source? The ghost of a parrot, which Emily knows is serious but which Albert believes, in Gothic tradition, is an indication that something Isn’t Right with Loretta, or Emily, or both, an entirely different kind of threat for them to Be Quiet or else end up in an institution. The weight of expectations and Albert’s refusal to truly risk himself, placing as primary importance the securing of his fortune, is something the story weaves into this malevolent force, revealing just how at risk the sisters are when they think the system will ultimately protect them. And I love how the story shows that it’s only by finding strength in each other and the heritage that everyone else seems to think is better off erased, that Emily and Loretta can hope to survive and overcome. By doing what they need to do, regardless of what they are allowed to do. It is an empowering, redemptive story that does not conceal the danger or the dark, but shows how it can be fought, and defeated.

“To Us May Grace Be Given” by L.S. Johnson (GigaNotoSaurus)
Tasting Notes: Brash and with the taste of blood, wine and beer meet and battle here, the pour a riot of ruddy copper, the first sip bitter, the experience memorable and strange and bold and unsettling even as it dances with promise.
Pairs with: Syrah IPA
Review: Sometimes there are situations that have no good options. Where the setting and circumstances have been twisted and corrupted into leaving only hard roads paved in loss and blood. For Addy, a young person being raised as a boy to make them less of a target for abuse and rape, the world seems mostly what their mother tells them, a pit of vipers and a landscape of monsters. Faced with the prospect of being forced off their land by a man with considerable pull in the frontier town, Addy’s mother hatches a plan, to use a monster to kill another monster. In so doing, though, she reveals the cruelty and violence in her own heart, and Addy is left in a situation where there is no way out without doing harm, without betraying someone. The story is fast, visceral, and unsettling as fuck. This is a setting where to survive is essentially to become a monster, where violence and abuse are so woven into the fabric of society that there is getting away from it. Addy is put into an impossible situation and wants only the uncomplicated love of their animals and for a bit of safety in a dangerous world. What they get is a conflict they never wanted and no way to avoid the chaos and the noise and the death that finds them. It’s a story that weaves together vampires and six-shooters, blood and magic and revenge. It has a power to it, and a momentum that cannot be denied or delayed. And it also has something, coated in mud and mire and all manner pain, but beautiful all the same—that in a world where everyone is a monster, you still have choose what kind of monster you’ll be. That a broken world is no excuse for not trying to do the right thing, even with the right thing is impossible. That for Addy, the most important thing is to be true to themself, and to see how far that will get them.

Art by Rubén Castro
“My Struggle” by Lavie Tidhar (Apex)
Tasting Notes: Evoking an older German style, this updates and twists expectations, offering up a freshness that breathes with the feeling of autumn—of fading light, the coming of winter, and the crunch of dead leaves underfoot.
Pairs with: Oktoberfest
Review: So I don’t think I expected a story featuring Hitler (yes, Hitler) as a private detective in an alt-history noir mystery about the Spear of Destiny would ever make the Round. And yet this piece so deftly marries the offensive, monstrous narrative of Hitler, P.I., with a frame that makes it about the desire to rewrite history, about the many might-have-beens that could take the place of real-life atrocities. More than that, the story captures a tone and feel of a time and reveals through essentially making Hitler the “good guy” of the story just how dangerous and powerful stories can be, and how especially for stories of that time period, swapping Hitler with the main character doesn’t actually break the story. What does it say, in some ways, that this story exists, and that for some the urge might be to root of Hitler. Especially given recent events, the story seems to ask what people like this look like without the power over states. The answer is...they look familiar. And there’s the darkness and the horror of the story, the way that it builds this rather familiar narrative and makes it fun and almost farcical except for the parts that you can’t ignore or get around. Because, in the end, it’s a story with Hitler as one of the main characters. A story that is almost…fun as it spotlights celebrities and scandals of the era and builds a plot around greed and shades of fascism. And it doesn’t lose sight of how delicate a proposition that is, grounding the larger narrative not with Hitler but with a Jewish man trapped in the Berlin ghetto, trying to find distractions even as the reality of his life looms ever larger. It’s unrelenting and powerful and manages to make a story about Hitler subtle and nuanced, and it does it in breathtaking (and heartbreaking) fashion.

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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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