Thursday, January 27, 2022

Questing in Shorts, January 2022: Saturation Part 1

This month, I attempted to read all of the short fiction.

Well, no, not all of it all of it, but I decided to get as close as I could to reading all the back issues of the stuff I was subscribed to in 2021. As I didn't read much short fiction at all in the first six months of the year, and I don't tend to get through everything I'm subscribed to, this ended up being 205 stories across 42 issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Augur, Strange Horizons, Apex, Giganotosaurus, Uncanny, Constelacion, Fantasy, Mermaids Monthly, The Future Fire, Fireside, FIYAH, and Anathema Magazine, and a bit of cheeky anthology reading on top.

As with any arbitrarily reading challenge, the first thing I have learned from this intense period of taking in new material is: reading is supposed to be fun, and anything that detracts from that fun by overloading you, causing anxiety or otherwise pulling you away from other priorities is actually not a very good idea. There are no medals for quantity of short stories read, and I can't even say I now feel "well read": what I choose to read is such a tiny proportion of the genre as a whole, and I know I'm missing gems from places like Escape Pod and Podcastle, stuff I've taken "out of rotation" like The Dark and Clarkesworld, all the print magazines I don't have time for, and a whole heap of venues I'm not familiar with at all. I physically can't do much more reading than I do right now, and so it is up to me to accept those gaps, just like I accept that there's plenty of novels that are, by all accounts, amazing, but which I never get to read, because time sucks.

The second thing I have learned is that I'm pretty happy with my "pull" list. I'm sad that Mermaids Monthly is not continuing, so that won't be on my 2022 list, but otherwise I feel like I'm getting a great balance of the stories that I like, told by new-to-me and favourite authors whose work I like being exposed to. I think I have a gap for a science fiction publication focused on big ideas by diverse authors (if you have recommendations, go hit me up on Twitter - Clarkesworld is an option but I want to explore alternatives first). More generally, I'm happy with my reading model of "subscribe to a few things and read most of what they put out", and I rarely find myself reading a story that I just don't like. Sure, I know there's a lot more out there that I'm missing, but... see point 1.

The third thing I have learned is that, WOW, there is a lot of great writing out there. Kind of... too many to write in a single column. So, this is going to be a two-parter! I'm going to cover stories from Apex, Augur and Strange Horizons here, and follow up next week with some of highlights from the Unfettered Hexes anthology, top stories from the rest of the publications I read, and probably a bit more navel gazing too.

Let's go:

Apex Magazine, Issues 123 and 126

Apex Magazine wins this month's prize for making me cry too much, thanks to some powerful stories in Issue 123 and 126. Issue 123 has "Throw Rug", by Aurelius Raines II, which throws out one of the most powerful final lines I've ever come across: fitting, for a story about a scrawny Black boy taking up wrestling and learning to become a champion, despite the obstacles - including racism - thrown in his path. There's a riff on Samson and Delilah, a ton of exploration of race, masculinity, success and perseverence and a really interesting documentary framing that gives different characters - including the young wrestler himself - space to offer perspectives. The issue also contains "Mishpokhe and Ash" by Sydney Rossman-Reich, the story of a Hungarian Jewish family and the golem their daughter creates, trying to survive the influence of Nazi Germany over their country and create rules for survival in a world that is seeking only their destruction. And "This is the Moment, or One of Them" by Mari Ness really captures that "vaguely dystopian technology but make it wistful" vibe that Apex does so well, featuring someone using a time altering device to try and change past events around a former lover, working out which moment needs to change to keep them safe.

The Indigenous Futurism issue spans from luxury space station resorts with substandard working conditions, to Coyote shenanigans during a St Patrick's Day celebration, but the story that smacked me in the face most effectively was "Marked by Bears" by Jessie Loyer, a story about reparations by humans towards different intelligent animal groups after human society collapses. Somehow, Loyer balances the "red in tooth and claw" aspects of this new accord with some very human meditations on justice and balance. On the one hand, the actions that take place in the story feel monstrous, but on another... it works? Certainly one to read the content warnings for: but if you can handle it, it's thought provoking stuff.

A bonus mention here for "O2 Arena" by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, originally published in Galaxy's Edge and reprinted in Apex 129. Ekpeki's story (the 2 in "O2" should be subscript, and no, for Londoners, it's not about the Millennium Dome) provides a scathing dystopian future where the speculative elements only serve to underscore existing inequality. It's firmly grounded in Lagos, in a world where climate change has killed off phytoplankton and made the oxygen in the air unbreathable, forcing humanity to rely on filters and gas cylinders or, for the rich, comfortable climate-controlled sealed environments. Its protagonist is a student just about making things work on the edge of wealthy society, but his best friend's illness forces him to seek less savoury methods to put together the oxygen credits that will allow her to survive. While the first person narration occasionally becomes a little too perfect (I struggle on principle when male characters are able to see through patriarchy when their female friends can't, even though I know it does happen), on the whole it's a really powerful look at just how extractive capitalist society can become.

Augur Magazine, Year 4

I like that I can sit down and appreciate Augur's entire 2021 output in one dedicated afternoon. I would like this even more if they offered more reading options than just PDF: yes, this enables some interesting typesetting for a few of the stories ("In the Shadow of the Field" by Anastasia McCray uses it to great effect in issue 4.1), but I struggle to read on a computer screen and it would be nice to at least have the option to read more flexibly on an e-reader, you know?

But we're here to read stories, not whinge about file formats. Augur does a great range of diverse fiction with an emphasis on Canadian authors, and a lot of stories really capitalise on their sense of place, whether that's Canada or further afield. "African Meeting House" by Kate Foster (Issue 4.1) features two Black sisters who move back to their small town, and put the ghosts of their antecedents to rest in the house where they grew up, and the latter is a diaspora story in which a girl buying stuff from a convenience store gets told the story of a mango which turns out to be more relevant to her than she expects. In "The House at the End of the World" by Ashley Deng (Issue 4.1), protagonist Yi and her family have what they need to survive provided to them by their magical house, even as the world falls apart and starves around them: when she disobeys a directive to never go into the attic, Yi figures out the secret behind the house's generosity and her family's code when it comes to maintaining it (it's grim, but not gratuitously so, and I appreciate that.) I also really enjoyed the weird world and the meaty takes on power from L. Chan's "It Takes a Village" (Issue 4.2): in a world where the rich can create sentient dolls, a travelling magistrate with a reputation for dealing with doll-related cases is sent to the village where unwanted ones live to deal with a strange murder case.

Finally, let's talk about "Purgatory is High, Low and Inside me" by Emily Carrasco-Acosta (Issue 4.1), about Mariana, a young woman with diabetes who has to deal with being able to see ghosts when her blood sugar is too low or too high. It's a meditative story, one which delves into the feelings of its protagonist around her life and how precarious being chronically ill can feel, especially when that illness comes with such a weird direct link to death. We follow Mariana as she deals with her gift, and the relationship she builds with another woman, and when that turns out to be impermanent we feel the ache of that loss even as it changes Mariana's perspective on life into something, tentatively, for the better. Really good stuff.

Strange Horizons, May - December 2021

Art for All Us Ghosts: Johnny Anger

While I moan about having to read Augur in PDF, I must also lament not having had an ebook edition of Strange Horizons to read since last May, but this minor inconvenience was no match for my will to read good stories and I have therefore read some more things on my computer. Please send my medal soon, OK? (Also, because I read these in one big glut and did not take good notes of dates, the initial version of this post is not going to include dates - if you're not reading this sentence, it's because I've gone back and edited them in later.)

Anyway, it was fine, because it's Strange Horizons and Strange Horizons does some of the best stuff out there. Of particular note was their sexy interactive fiction special, Strange Lusts, featuring two hypertext games by Natalia Theodoridou and Anna Anthropy. "Pockets", a game about post apocalyptic survival centring a queer couple, is excellent, but "Heat from Fire" by Anna Anthropy is something else: a super steamy choose-your-own-tentacle adventure (I think the tentacles are optional but I did not feel the need to explore the no tentacle branch) featuring a trans witch alienated by her TERF-y coven and seeing comfort by summoning (and sexting) a very hot lady-shaped version of Asmodeus. It's sexy and it's also a really fantastic story about belonging and what gets treated as transgressive. Like all hypertext fictions, playing through more than once is encouraged.

Moving on from the sexy stuff, Kola Heyward Rotimi's "An Exploration of Nichole Otieno's Early Filmography" blew me away with its travelogue-as-academic-text framing and its take on colonialism and academia and how one studies something that resists the idea of permanence. I'm really into travelogue stories at the moment and this is really, really good. Also amazing? "The Constellations are Unrecognisable Here" by Andrew Joseph White, set on a medical spaceship that picks up survivors in decimated colonies in the aftermath of a galactic war. Amavon is a trans boy, trying to deal with the aftermath of terrible injuries and trauma as well as trying to convince his caseworker to approve top surgery; while travelling, he builds a relationship with Jenea, another trans survivor and burn victim, and the two end up affecting each other in an intense and not entirely healthy way. White's story tackles really difficult stuff in a light touch, generous way, and I found myself really rooting for both kids even as Amavon, in particular, makes some painful decisions. And there's some great anti-capitalist stories: "Thread Count", by Cynthia Gomez, is about a mysterious spate of deaths among the Fortune 500 rich list, in ways which turn out to be powerfully tied to the exploitation that made their fortunes. And then there's "All Us Ghosts" by B. Plade, whose protagonist Jules is a gig worker for a company that allows parents to invent and control all of their young adult children's social connections through virtual university. Jules divides his time between being every adult friend and girlfriend that rich kid Cam has ever had, dealing with his actual IRL crush on Cam, and campaigning for greater rights for the workers who have to take on this kind of labour; when the streams cross and Cam becomes involved in activism against the company, the gulf between the exploitation Cam perceives and the exploitation Jules has lived through throws the entire clusterfuck of a system into relief.

Also, I can't talk about Strange Horizons without talking about the highlights of its sister publication Samovar: the undisputed highlight of the two issues I read was "Ensign", by Soyeon Jeong, with its take on spacefaring indenture. The colonists of the planet where the story is set are bound to a deal made by their grandparents' generation, which says that they can choose whether to stay on the world, even as its infrastructure starts to crumble and life begins to get harder, or they can sign up to be relocated when the company that settled the planet needs them elsewhere: whether that be in the next week or in 40 years' time. Hajeong and Yuna are partners, but when it comes time for each of them to set their decision in stone by their 30th birthday, the gap between what each of them wants becomes an enormous strain on their family, and Hajeong, as the one who wants to stay behind, tries to live with her partner's inexplicable choice and the uncertainty it brings to their life together.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy