Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Adventures in Short Fiction: February 2019

I've been on holiday in Costa Rica for the last couple of weeks, armed with my trusty e-reader and a mountain of reading intentions (and obviously some paperbacks as well for "just in case"). In between animal encounters of land and sea, I got a lot of reading done and tons of that was short fiction, filling spare moments with brief journeys into fantasy worlds and far future concepts. Along the way, I feel like I've gained more of an appreciation of what good short fiction brings to the table that longer lengths can't, hitting whatever emotional or intellectual centres it needs to with a carefully chosen balance of character, plot and world. Plus, while not every story is equally memorable - though many which I have read and forgotten from are no doubt the ones which have provoked other people to muse on and reread - the investment for reading short stories that miss the mark is much lower than for a novel, which makes a reading list of anthologies and magazines a great counterweight if, for example, you've also decided to also commit to some challenging longer stuff on the side. (Marlon James, I'm looking at you. And no, it wasn't even that Marlon James novel.)

New Suns ed. Nisi Shawl (2019).

This anthology of original speculative fiction by writers of colour has been put together by the magnificent Nisi Shawl, which is an early indication we're all going to be in for a great time. The seventeen stories within are varied and interesting and there's a good proportion of authors I already love, including Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Rebecca Roanhorse, and new-to-me names. The breadth of stories, tones and styles on display here is entertaining and, I think, important, making it abundantly clear that the work of authors of colour can't be reduced to a single set of issues or sub-genre or to the ever-shifting label of "message fiction".

There was so much interesting stuff in here that it's tricky to pick favourites: "The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex" by Tobias Buckell hit some great notes on the theme of intergalactic inequality and dependency, casting Earth as an "undiscovered" tourist spot for aliens, and the exploration of humans trying to live their lives and maintain their own culture against the constant stream of visitors is very well done. "The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations" by Minsoo Kang, told through the form of a historical text examining a war averted between a mad emperor and an ambitious sea captain, is beautifully written and contains a well-crafted sting in the tail of what could otherwise have been a romance for the ages. Rebecca Roanhorse's "Harvest" tells of a fling between Tansi, an aspiring chef, and a deer woman with murder on her mind, and is told with Roanhorse's talent for slow burning entrapment and horror even within the space of fifteen pages. And while it was a bit left-field, I have a real soft spot for "One Easy Trick" by Hiromi Goto, about a woman who finds a way to magic her own belly fat away and learns that it was a more important part of herself than she ever imagined. This is a great anthology to dip into, either story-by-story or in one super varied read, and I'm happy that it's put some great new authors on my radar.

Rating: 8/10

If This Goes On, Ed. Cat Rambo (2019).

This collection, kickstarted last year by the small Parvus Press, sets itself an interesting goal: encompassing the sense of disaster and impending doom that current political and environmental factors evoke (mainly focused on the USA) while also incorporating notes of hope. The result is slightly uneven, as some stories contain little more than a grimly extrapolated premise, but others do shine. Of these, it was the stories with a feeling of historical weight to them which really grabbed me. "Mr. Percy's Shortcut", by Andy Duncan, recounts the tale of an Appalachian miner - one of the few in his version of the future who hasn't switched to data mining - who spends his life digging through a mountain in order to reach the other side. It's a story of almost nonsensical triumph, but it feels "lived in" and the speculative elements are compelling but understated. On the much grimmer side, the stories "A Gardener's Guide to the Apocalypse" and "Free Wifi" present very different testimonials which we have reason to suspect would never be canonically read - the former, by Lynette Mejia, is a diary charting a year in the life of a gardener recording the growth around her despite the destruction which has taken all but her and her partner; the latter, by Marie L. Vibbert, a story of young rebellion in a corporatised world which is crushed in actuality but not in spirit. Both have strong character voices, underscored by the modes of telling, which really underscore the premises and stop them from being too grim despite the subject matter.

Some other gems in here include "Welcome to Gray", by Cyd Athens, a superhero origin story with notes of Henrietta Lacks and a great subversive take on representing dialect, and E. Lily Yu's story, "Green Glass: A Love Story", a no-expense-spared romance in very late capitalism which manages to keep the protagonist's wish - to have real ice cream served at her wedding - naively sympathetic, without flinching from showing the widespread destruction and misery which surrounds those without the means to keep themselves insulated. All in all, this is a neat little collection despite its ups and downs, and while it's very tied to the political moment, if you're interested in on-the-pulse speculative fiction this is one to consider.

Rating: 6/10

How Long 'Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin (2018).

This is the first collection (i.e. a set of stories by a single author, whereas an anthology is a set by a group of authors brought together by a particular editor) I've covered in this roundup so far, and it's going to be a hard act to follow. I've read a couple of N.K. Jemisin's shorts before - notably, "The City Born Great", her Hugo-nominated urban fantasy of a couple of years ago, as well as some fiction around the Inheritance Trilogy (which is notably absent here). Lack of god-politics aside, if you're a fan of N.K. Jemisin then this is definitely a collection you will want to read. Spanning well over a decade of Jemisin's writing career, and running the genre gamut from space-faring science fiction ("Cloud Dragon Skies", "The Evaluators") to alternate history ("The Effluent Engine") to dystopian realism ("The Elevator Dancer") and urban fantasy ("The City Born Great", "Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters"). The worlds of the Broken Earth and of Dreamblood both put in appearances, in "proof of concept" stories which predate their respective novels, and there's a pair of stories, "The Trojan Girl" and "Valedictorian", set in the same post-singularity reality from very different perspectives.

There's so much good stuff in here, but I particularly want to highlight one which most represents the volume as a whole: the opening story, the "The Ones who Stay and Fight". As the title suggests, this is a response to Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", set in Um-Helat, a city of generally kind people living sustainably and harmoniously, and actively working to correct the injustices of the past and maintain their society as it is. In introducing this society, the narrator holds a dialogue with a fictionalised version of the reader, challenging their inability to suspend disbelief for a society bent towards compassionate progress without any dark "catch". Why is it so hard to believe that a kinder, better society is possible - and even if it isn't, what value is there in insisting, angrily, that hatred and suffering must always be present? It's a theme taken up in so many ways, big and small, by Jemisin's stories in this collection and beyond: where protagonists are often trying to exercise agency and dream of better things in the most imbalanced, hopeless of situations, and those who stand in their way are often not the characters who do incomprehensibly awful things - who are often complex, sympathetic and sometimes even redeemable - but who uphold and insist on the status quo which brought those "evil" acts about. "The Ones who Stay and Fight" explicitly challenges us to question where our suspension of disbelief kicks in, and why, and while that self-examination isn't strictly necessary to enjoy the rest of this collection, it's an exercise that we can only benefit from.

Rating: 9/10 Jan/Feb 2019 (Download for free)'s short fiction output hardly needs any introduction, but what might have escaped some peoples' attention is that there's now a free subscription service where they will send you a bimonthly ebook of stories published on the site for your e-reading pleasure. While this doesn't seem to be every single one, getting a free collection like this is still a no-brainer for me, and there's a range of fascinating stuff here by some great writers. "Deriving Life", by Elizabeth Bear, is a story of life and love in a world where people can guarantee a reduced but painless term of life by becoming a host to an alien parasite, explores its concept through the lens of a relationship between a dying host and the lover they are leaving behind. It's a deeply nuanced look at autonomy and the choices we make now and for our own futures, and while it doesn't offer any easy answers it maintains a huge amount of compassion towards its (queer) characters. Another favourite was "Circus Girl, the Hunter and Mirror Boy", about a woman who used to have the ghost of a drowned boy as her reflection, who reappears in her life right as he's being hunted down. The themes of identity are particularly interesting in JY Yang's atmospheric ghostly tale.

For fans of Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut stories, there's another piece of punch card punk history here: "Articulated Restraint", a story of Elma York's colleague Ruby working a training mission that suddenly becomes much more serious and painful than expected. Ruby's voice and drive wasn't distinct enough from Elma's to really invest me in this as a standalone story, but taken with the rest of the series it's another interesting window into the ambition and fortitude expected of women trying to break through a militarised patriarchy in this high stakes world. There's also a piece from Analee Newitz's Autonomous world, "Old Media", which follows a couple of the characters from that piece in a sweet slice-of-life story about recovery, anime and naps. Worthy stories by Mimi Mondal and John Chu round out an overall very strong set of stories with lots of variety and food for thought.

Rating: 7/10

Anathema Magazine, Issue 6 (2019) (Read Online for Free)

Anathema's tagline is "Spec from the Margins", publishing queer speculative fiction from POC/aboriginal/indigenous creators, and this is the second issue of theirs I've read. Based on my experiences so far, I can confirm it's a magazine that's well worth your time, but one which requires a particular mindset to sit down and enjoy; in this issue in particular, every single story bursts off the page with loss and grief and while it's an exquisite, well-crafted sort of pain which never feels gratuitous, it's still a hard thing to get through. Among the best, most painful experiences in here are those dealing with families going to unimaginable lengths to hold together. In "There Are Ghosts Here" by Dominique Dickey, a young boy's life cut short under violent circumstances begets a similarly grim sacrifice from his sister and cousins, held together with magic that is simultaneously mundane and extremely creepy.

"The Plague House" by Maria Chhabra follows Catia, one of the few people immune from a deadly, unpleasant plague that is sweeping through her city, as she nurses the sick, watches those around her succumb and tries to save the life of one particular girl left in her care. It's a story which handles its body horror extremely well, driving home the awfulness of the plague without dwelling too deeply on the physical horror at the expense of the wider pain that people are going through as a result. The issue closes with "Pale Blue Dot", by Kai Hudson, an understated but equally powerful story about a family's survival in the face of economic uncertainty, even with the promise of the stars on their doorstep. Also of note is "This is the Nightmare", by Aysha U. Farah, which is a compelling futuristic Sherlock Holmes riff whose eventual direction left me guessing until quite near the end. The use of technology here - and particularly the "personality" that the Sherlock character ends up giving her unwanted robot pall - will make any reader who remembers their angsty teenhood wince in sympathy, but the relationships and setting make it so much more than an exercise in vicarious teen nostalgia. All in all, Anathema is a publication that's worth giving your heart to, even when you know its going to crush it with every page.

Rating: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.