Friday, January 12, 2018

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 12/2017

Last call. If you haven’t heard before, this marks the final Monthly Round. Starting with coverage of October 2014, this is the 39th installment of the series, and I’m afraid it’s the last, at least with me at the helm.

December is a time of endings, though, so perhaps it’s fitting that I’m closing the series with the last SFF stories of 2017. They are an amazing bunch of speculative fiction. And, I guess even more on-the-nose, they are largely concerned with endings and beginnings. With rebirth. With change. With moving on. Each one features a situation loaded with potential, where people stand poised to enter into a new stage of their lives. Or a new stage of humanity entirely. From apocalypses brought on by climate change or epidemic or alien invasion, to much more personal catastrophes of loss, fear, history, and hatred, the stories all recognize that things ending is a part of life, and it doesn’t have to mean the end of all things.

Life goes on. Winter gives birth to new years, new springs, and new possibilities. So, for one last time, pull up a stool, leave the cold outside, and warm yourself with a drink, and a story, and good company.

Tasting Flight - December 2017

Art by Sandeep Karunakaran
“When The Night Blooms, An Artist Transmutes: A Three-Act Play” by Nin Harris (The Dark)
Notes: As dark as soil and aged centuries, allowing the flavor to mature, for the sins to marinade into ghosts, the pour is a moonless night and a tug in the veins, a lean toward hunger...or healing.
Pairs with: Barrel Aged Baltic Porter
Review: Kasmawati is an artist who finds herself drawn to a tower that seems to appear only for her. A piece of drama, the story is told with dialogue and stage direction, the action constrained to a stage, which the reader creates in their mind as they read, conjuring up a Gothic setting ripe with ghosts, sweeping landscapes, and the need for justice. The piece, for me, becomes very much about old wounds, where this tower represents a piece of history, the touch of empire and colonization that has left its mark, and that Kasmawati finds herself revisiting in the form of the ghost of one of the old colonial governors, the architect of not just the tower she finds herself in but a series of atrocities and abuses on the native people of the island, including a woman who he took as his, who he renamed and eventually buried. In excellent Gothic tradition, though, what’s been buried pushes its way to the surface, and that power of naming that this man possessed is reclaimed by Kasmawati. Monsters of all sorts are unearthed and either put to rest or let free, and the story does an amazing job of showing how these historical wounds can fester if they’re not cleansed and allowed to heal clean. And I just love that the story unfolds as a play, as something that almost demands to be performed. The voice and mood of the piece are stunning, taking the Gothic roots and showing how they can flourish far away from where they first flowered.

Art by Sandro Castelli
“The Weight of Sentience” by Naru Dames Sundar (Shimmer)
Notes: Blood and sand dominate the color of the pour, leading the taster into an experience rich in heat and hope, heavy with the weight of violence lurking, delicate with the fragility of life, and strong with the resilience of love.
Pairs with: Imperial Red Ale
Review: Following Trisa, an android whose sentience was not voluntary but still carries with it a death sentence, the story reveals a world of prejudice, violence, and hate. Trisa, newly aware and desperate to escape, witnesses first hand the treatment that she can expect, the death waiting for her, and yet she survives, survives at first because she holds onto the dream of others, a dream for a better place. As she moves, though, and the immediate threat diminishes and escape seems possible, something changes. When she meets someone. The story then moves into a touching and wrenching portrayal of budding love and knowledge and understanding, while looking at respect and at faith. Trisa’s new reality is one where she can be seen as a person first, hiding her true nature, and then learning that for some people she doesn’t need to. This story made me want a happy ending so bad, wanted something to finally go right for the characters who had to deal with so much. What the story provides instead is a reminder that happy endings can’t really happen in places where hate is allowed to triumph over love, where people are treated as lesser, as inhuman. The piece explores Trisa’s reaction to feeling what’s possible and then being told that it’s not available to her, and how that shakes her faith. It’s a difficult, heartbreaking read, even as it’s a beautiful story that sings with the power of its emotional core. It’s a brutal world it tours, where tenderness and compassion seem impossible, and yet for all the seeming fragility of love, for all it cannot do, the story ends on a message of hope, on resilience and survival.

“The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou (Strange Horizons)
Notes: Complex and rising like a bird taking flight, the pour is of a sun-kissed sky, the flavor a mix of bitterness and crisp resolve, the feeling that of loss giving way to something else, of feathers and futures and the unrelenting dawn.
Pairs with: Imperial IPA
Review: Maria is a pregnant woman moving through Greece, which is being ravaged by a disease that turns people into birds. It’s a disease that her father, who had been traveling with her and who has made his life work about birds, has contracted, and as she moves she has to come to terms not just with the changing world and her own desperate need to find her husband, but the changing relationship between herself and her father, and what this disease means for them. There’s a beautiful kind of mythology about the story, a sense that for Maria, the disease is personal—the fairy tale from the title seems to me to be in how these large events revolve around Maria and her particular situation, where she is a character at heart of what is happening, the child stolen from the Queen of Birds, so that now the world must pay. It’s a way that she can think about what’s happening without being destroyed by it, to make it into a story out of a book instead of the very real, very immediate danger she is in. The piece builds smoothly, the pacing almost languid for all that the world is being transformed so quickly, so completely, humanity sprouting wings and flying away. And I love that mix of magic and science, disease and fantasy—it gives weight to the hope that Maria carries, that if this is her fairy tale, then maybe there is a happily ever after waiting at the end for her. Of course, that’s not exactly the case, but I like how the piece shows Maria move through the world, meeting another survivor, and continuing her journey to find her husband. it’s not an easy read, and there’s a definite turning point where I felt my stomach sink, where the story twisted the knife a bit. Through it all, though, I felt the story was complicating transformations, the magic at the heart of so many fairy tales. It asks if what happens here is a tragedy or something different, something beautiful and rare and freeing. It’s a powerful and disquieting question, and a wonderful story.

Art by Christopher Park
“The House at the End of the Lane is Dreaming” by A. Merc Rustad (Lightspeed)
Notes: Pouring a ruddy gold, the first sip is bright and sweet, but belies a complex flavor of fruit and wood, of fire on the horizon and the burn of limbs running from, or toward, an impossible and inevitable destruction.
Pairs with: Cherry Wheat
Review: Framed from inside a video game as it’s being created, this story stars Alex, a young woman who is faced with a town in crisis, with a situation where her pain, her loss, and her fear are all on display for the entertainment of people she will never see, who will control her and share a journey with her, but who will ultimately move on with their lives, leaving Alex with a life that has been completely upended. I love the feel the story builds, the weirdness that can only be explained by the growing certainty that things have been designed to force Alex down a single path, the “right” path that will lead her to the end of the game, to the victory that for her doesn’t feel like a victory, because the stakes have been manipulated to give Alex no way to save everyone she cares about. She, and through her the player, must decide who to value, and who dies, and Alex nopes the fuck out of that in the best way possible. What follows is a piece that breaks the rules, and in doing so breaks the barrier between worlds, turning the tables on those who hoped to profit from Alex’s pain. Along the way she digs deeper into the world around her, helping the characters who were never intended to be more than NPCs to become full realized people. To remember who they are beyond what they need to be for the game. It’s a triumphant and wonderful story that carries with it a heavy weight but that finds a way to a happy ending that wasn’t supposed to be possible.

“An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried” by Debbie Urbanski (Terraform)
Notes: The tar-like pour reveals a nose of paved roads burning under a merciless sun, a path down which lies only ruin and extinction, the taste brash, bracing, a wake-up call to take action before we’re past the point of no return.
Pairs with: Black IPA
Review: There’s a lot of ways a story can go when its starting point is the extinction of the human species. But what I appreciate so much about this story is that it looks at so many different ways that people react to the idea of extinction. How unreal it feels. How slow people can be to take action, and how even when action is taken, it can so easily be mired in obstruction, delay, and defeat. The story is told backwards, drawing back from the end of humanity, and by telling the story in reverse the focus is put both on how large the stakes are and how much all of things on this list fail. Not perhaps because they weren’t good things to try, but because by the time that things really started getting serious, things were already pretty much decided. It’s a story that recognizes that when it comes to climate change, when it comes to the damage that humanity is doing to the planet, the time to act is not when we’re feeling the worst of the symptoms. Indeed, the story warns about putting off drastic action any longer than we already have. It’s not exactly a subtle piece, but then it doesn’t have to be, and it does a wonderful job of revealing humanity and our history of toxicity, exploitation, and destruction. There really aren’t characters in the story per se, but it’s something that draws the reader into the piece, that makes all of us part of that “we” of the title. All responsible for the failure that might result in our eradication. All responsible for making sure that we don’t get locked into this pattern, working our way backwards from an extinction we refuse to avoid. It’s a punchy bit of science fiction, a kick in the butt in prose form.

Art by Dario Bijelac
“The First Stop Is Always the Last” by John Wiswell (Flash Fiction Online)
Notes: A first sip of autumn and endings, nervous laughter and the fear of misstepping, opens into a brilliant sweetness, balanced and subtle without becoming saccharine, joyous and warm and satisfying.
Pairs with: Hard Cider
Review: A woman gets on a bus and has a conversation. A woman gets on a bus and has a slightly different conversation. A woman gets on a—well, maybe you get the idea. When one of the characters in the story is the inheritor of the power over time itself, perhaps it’s not too strange that the story is framed as a series of scenes united by the fact that they’re basically all the same scene, just tweaked slightly, each time this character trying to do a bit better, a bit better. And really the story revolves around the idea of the safety that having infinite do-overs affords. How it takes a lot of the risk out of life, because it allows the person trying over the ability to wipe away any perceived mistakes. And I love how the story complicates that idea, how it twists that idea into showing that by never taking that risk, by always going back, that going forward becomes nearly impossible. More over, it creates an imbalance, where the one person aware of the difference has an advantage, and in that imbalanced state it’s rather impossible to meet others as equals, as peers. Authentic connections cannot really be formed, because any interaction is touched by the many times the one person might tweak them, might adjust them to fit a bit better. And then for me the story becomes about having the confidence to move forward, to take chances. To get over the fear that everything will go wrong and realize that there are other ways to try and be safe. Namely, there’s a feeling for me that the story is saying that forming relationships, that making sure of consent and trust, allows us to create our own safety without having to have the advantage of temporal manipulation. it’s a fun and very sweet story, with romance and magic and a wonderful joy to it.


I just want to thank everyone who has made the last 3+ years of The Monthly Round such a success. For me, it’s been something of an exorcism, of rediscovering my love of reviewing and trying to find my voice and place within SFF fandom. It’s been a slow kind of thing, lots of work punctuated by hoping that maybe these posts bring others as much joy as the stories I feature have brought me.

To everyone at Nerds of a Feather, thank you so much for welcoming me into the flock. To everyone out there who has enjoyed the Round, thank you for treating my weird stories-as-drink-pairings project as more than just a silly whim. You are awesome.

It’s time to play the song that means it’s time to go, though. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. Cheers!


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