Short fiction recs: February and March 2018
It finally feels like spring as I write this, a seemingly endless winter finally behind us and the world moving forward (if late!) into a new season. It’s fitting, then, that so many of the stories in this roundup speak of movement and change, of seasons on both cosmic and personal scales. Here are tales of darkness and tales of warmth and light, of horror and of healing. If it’s still cold where you are, curl up with these stories and a blanket and cup of hot tea. If it’s warm, read them anyway. May they offer you a moment of stillness in this changing season and world.
The universe is in deep winter. This is my conclusion after studying the matter for 6.7 trillion years.
The universe is in winter: the time near the end, as everything winds down toward maximal entropy. During this winter, one last sentience travels through space, harvesting the energy of dying stars. As it travels, it tries to assemble from its memory banks a picture of its own identity, where it came from, and who its human creators were. This is a gorgeous piece about home and memory, hope and death and cycles of renewal. Like much of my favorite science fiction, it evokes a sense of vast time and distance and wonder. . . but Liu beautifully injects a real sense of human poignancy as well. One of the best things I’ve read so far this year.
“A Priest of Vast and Distant Places” by Cassandra Khaw at Apex
The narrator of this story (told in the second-person) is a priest of airplanes. Airplanes speaks to the character, and the character speaks back. Stay, airplanes tell the priest, asking this human to remain always in flight, always traveling, always off to see the sights of a new city.
You can fall in love with the sutras of never-stopping, always-moving, with the mantra of footsteps on clean, white tiles, the electronic voice reciting departures like prayers for the dead. Stay, the plane said, wrapping you in its thrum, the way a man might lay his woolen coat over your shoulders, might kiss your face. Stay with me forever.
But the priest has a human family that they still love, and this story is about the pull between that family and the freedom of the skies. Although very different in scale and plot, Khaw’s story pairs well with Liu’s piece above, for both tales beautifully evoke the longing for home as well as a sense of great distances and the rush of constant travel. A lovely, affecting piece.
“The Mansion of Endless Rooms” by L. Chan at Syntax and Salt
You carry your father to the Mansion of Endless Rooms. It is the duty of the oldest to do this; not all children are called and fewer still answer. You feel his weight on your spine, the tightness of obligation around your neck, the responsibility grinding your knees.
A deeply moving story of loss, memory, burdens, and healing. This is an example of metaphor that absolutely works, and the ending—earned through real pain—rings true. One of Chan’s best stories yet.
“Flow” by Marissa Lingen at Fireside
I walk like my father. He has a long, swinging stride with a bounce in the balls of his feet. A cheerful walk but not one that brooks much argument. I am twelve years old and my mother thinks it’s time for me to learn to walk “like a girl.” My dad laughs and says that no one will ever mistake me for a boy.
All her life, the narrator has known that she walks like her father. The same swift, swinging walk. The same flow. That is how the naiads recognize her, how they know that she is one of theirs. And like her father, her chief task in life to help the naiads.
But one day the narrator gets sick; she develops a balance disorder. She loses her “flow.”
This is a beautiful, moving story about loss, grief, family, disability, and the hard forging of a new life. It’s about hydrology, science, erasure, the loss of an identity and the creation of a new one. In the end, it’s also about recognizing the support and love that’s been there for you all along.
“TheTriumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea” by Sara Saab at Shimmer
I can put away a gallon of bathtub brew in forty-eight seconds. I’ve eaten a stack of sausages so tall it speared itself on a lantern hook in the low ceiling of Huluu Public House near the port at Arnik.
This is the strange, strange tale of an orphaned competitive eater who lives on a train. It’s an atmospheric tale of grief, hunger, and mystery, a surreal tale that put me in mind of Kelly Link. You might not be sure where this story is going or of what it all means. But it moves forward with a kind of relentless dream-logic; it hooks claws into you and doesn’t let go.
“Molting Season” by J.B. Park at The Dark.
With soap and water I'd gotten the grease out of his hair. My fingers running through those locks, noting the familiarity of it, the shape of his head, the bumpiness that is mine too--how I'd woken up--there he'd been--there on the bed, the old me, the hideous thing that it was, nothing but a husk.
The narrator of this story hates his appearance. And then one day he wakes to find himself handsome, his complexion flawless—and his old body still in his bed, a separate being with seemingly little consciousness. This is an incredibly unsettling, surreal story of body horror unlike any I’ve ever seen. And one disconcerting aspect is this: the gruesome appearance of the narrator’s double, the pimpled, scarred skin described in such lavish detail, may well be perfectly ordinary. This is a haunting piece that addresses body image issues from a male perspective in a way that I haven’t quite seen before.
“Sabbaths” by L.S. Johnson at Syntax and Salt
Each month it took longer. Longer to rest after the long walk through the corn, longer to arrange the objects in their places. There could be no fire before readiness, so she stumbled around the circle with the flickering candle stub, her world reduced to that small pool of light and beyond it the darkness and the ghosts.
A fierce, dark tale of witches, women, love, oppression, and betrayal. Dark intensity packed into a small space.
“Al-Kahf” by Beesan Odeh at Lightspeed
There once lived a man who was stolen from the sea. Rare and magnificent, he lived in his cave, rising to the surface every so often to pluck the strings of his violin for the birds before retreating into the water to play for his kin.
A beautifully wrought fairy tale of sea magic, music, desperation, and revenge. Like L.S. Johnson’s story above, it is also a tale of systemic oppression. Odeh weaves the fairy tale aspects into a real-world setting and gives us a story that shows how the oppressed, from sheer desperation, can go on to perpetuate that oppression upon others.
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djeli Clark at Fireside
By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire” –Lund Washington, Mount Vernon plantation, Account Book dated 1784.
The note above, quoted at the beginning of this story, is from the financial ledgers of George Washington’s plantations. Yes, a Dr. Lemoire, believed to be the president’s dentist, paid cash for the teeth of nine humans—presumably for George Washington’s use.
Who did those teeth first belong to? How did they come to be another person’s property? In nine vignettes, Clark imagines the stories of these unnamed people. This is a dazzling mix of fantasy and history, invention and truth. In this story are enslaved mermen, necromancers, horses that breathe fire, and battles of sorcery. But these are also stories that search for the truths of American slavery, based upon real history: the horrific Middle Passage; the slaves that fought for the British during the American Revolution; a slave who runs away and seeks to free his sister with him. Stories of defiance, hope, pain, and love. After eight short scenes that blend fantasy and reality, the ninth is perhaps the most moving of all: an enslaved woman named Emma who has no special magic, who is neither conjurer nor necromancer, sorcerer or warrior. But she carves out her own life in the shadow of America’s first presidential family; she has her own hopes and desires. And the ordinary, human magic of her dream of freedom is perhaps the most powerful magic of all. An extraordinary, moving, and gorgeously-crafted work.
The author’s notes, illuminating the real-world history behind his story, can be found here.
His caseworker was one of those people who say the word “escapism” as if it’s a moral failing, a regrettable hobby, a mental-health diagnosis. As if escape is not, in itself, one of the highest order of magics they’ll ever see in their miserable mortal lives, right up there with true love and prophetic dreams and fireflies blinking in synchrony on a June evening.
This story is for all of us who know what it means to escape into a book. This story is for all of us who understand the magic of stories. It’s warm, wonderful, uplifting. . . with just the tiniest hint of bittersweetness. A lovely tribute to libraries, librarians, and the power of books.
“More Tomorrow” by Premee Mohammed at Automata
Anyway, it turns out trilobites aren’t very good eating even if you haven’t eaten in days. I had particularly high hopes for the fat, humped asaphids, thinking they would taste like shrimp, but everything I’ve caught so far is strictly armor and attitude, plus they bite.
And for a change of pace, here’s the rollicking tale of a scientist accidentally stranded in the late Devonian period. There are no dinosaurs to contend with, but there are dimetrodons and other scary prehistoric animals. Our resourceful narrator catches fish, fights off monsters, and does her best to survive while musing on ideas for scientific papers and pondering whether or not trilobites’ flavor would be improved by nacho cheese seasoning. This story is by turns hilarious and harrowing, narrated by a character who shields herself in humor and wisecracks to survive. Fun, endearing, and utterly winning.
“knickknack, knick knack” by Holly Lyn Walrath at Fireside
A story about witches that goes off in an unexpected direction. Spooky, charming, warm-hearted and delightful.
“Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence” by Izzy Wasserstein at Clarkesworld
A startlingly strange, lovely tale of desperate survival and love in a future fascist America—as recorded in the marginalia of an atlas of places that never were, that existed once, and which may yet be.
“Four-Point Affective Calibration” by Bogi Takacs at Lightspeed.
Takacs packs so much into this piece. It’s about fitting in (or rather, not fitting in); it’s about assimilation, acceptance, and the yearning for connection, the ability to reach out to others. Short, yet so sharp and powerful.