Short fiction recs! Nov-Dec 2020

 


Do you need an escape? I think most of us do. Here are some short stories I read and loved in late 2020; perhaps you’ll find escape in one of them. 


“You Do What You’re Told” by J.A.W. McCarthy in Apparition Lit

The woman who comes to Diana’s window is an improvement, or at least a bit more accurate this time around: light brown eyes, wide forehead, even the little patches of flaky skin where her earlobes meet her jaw. The woman stares through the glass, searching for Diana on the other side of her own reflection. She knows she doesn’t have to knock. 


 A strange, surreal tale of a woman being stalked, of an unknown man repeatedly creating his own image of who she is—of who he thinks she is. It’s a disturbing tale, quietly nightmarish. But the ending is also deeply satisfying. A tale that quietly digs in, and doesn’t let go.  

 

“Sunrise, Sunrise, Sunrise” by Lauren Ring in Apparition Lit

Every day, it goes like this: I wake to golden light, with the surface of a star just beyond my wide viewport window. As the hours pass, a supernova forms, enveloping my little research vessel. I check my monitoring equipment, I eat my favorite meals, and then in the evening, I die.


Another wonderful tale from the fall issue of Apparition Lit (and all the stories in this issue are great; you should read the whole thing if you can). Astronauts, time loops, and the discovery and experience of eternal love.

 

“Body, Remember” by Nicasio Andres Reed in Fireside Magazine

There’s a space within the exertion and the pains of his body where Jun finds stillness. Even as he digs, heaves, twists, there’s a quiet interior that he can reach by knowing that he is more than his body. As his fingers go stiff, as it begins again to snow, he retreats further and further into that dark room where none of it matters. He shovels for hours.


An aching, gorgeous, complex, and painful piece. A story about archaeology, the remains of the ancient dead, memory and family and flight and survival.

 

Proof of Existence” by Hal Y. Zhang in Uncanny 

There’s no discernible pattern at first: a British free diver who submerged in 1996 and surfaced eight minutes later into 2039. The doctor who woke in her bed to screams of the new fiancée of her now ten-years-older wife. Unsubstantiated reports of individuals and objects swirling on the ’net—a pharaoh’s four canopic jars, beloved family dogs, even a two-million-year-old Australopithecus. Thousands of people claiming they’d skipped minutes or centuries.


And this story is just so darn cool. A story about time travel, ambitious grad students, and yes, Sapphic poetry. A story about what’s lost and found, and daring to seize what you want. Beneath the humor and inventive storytelling and cool sci-fi ideas beats a heart of real poignancy.


To Sail the Black” by A.C. Wise in Clarkesworld

The ghost ship Xanthic Promise sails the black, powered by the slumbering heart of a dying star. And its captain, Antimony Jones, stalks its decks in a swirl of crimson coat and fox fire lighting, dogged by voices. The recent dead, the long dead, and the dead-to-be, all murmuring as to how she’s only three months into her command and it’s all coming undone.


Ghost ships powered by the dead and by captured stars. A murder mystery. A pirate captain determined to save her ship. This story is rollicking fun, but also stitched with both beauty and poignancy.

 

“Hearts in the Hard Ground” by G.V. Anderson at Tor

I buried the sad little creature in the frozen soil of my garden. I even made a cross out of two bits of cardboard and marked the date: the second of November.

It rose from the grave a day later, flying through the guest bedroom window and landing smack on the floor. I tried driving the gull out but you forget how big those fuckers are. In the end, I slammed the window shut and locked the door to trap it inside.


Anderson’s stories are quiet, lovely, and always feel so very real. This one is about a haunted house and ghosts both quiet and loud. It’s about mourning, guilt, and love—and letting go. It’s a story that ends in hope—as most of Anderson’s stories do—and yet it never feels like a false or easy hope. Her resolutions never feel pat. Like all her work, this story feels emotionally complex and real.

 

"Lone Puppeteer of a Sleeping City" by Arula Ratnakar in Clarkesworld

So the city had decided to sleep, or rather, temporarily disconnect their consciousnesses from their subconsciousnesses, and lend their brain motor circuitry to pods—spheroidal vessels that would hold their frozen bodies and tend to the sick lands with robotic appendages—until the time came for the city to wake once again, this time in a world of greenery.


A dreamy, intricate, and mind-bending far-future tale of humans and post-humans, love and regret and choices. An absolutely fascinating story by a new young writer.


"Magnificent Maurice, or the Flowers of Immortality" by Rati Mehrotra at Lightspeed

Maurice begins to pace, his tail swishing. “A cat has three main weapons,” he says, assuming a didactic tone that does not escape the witch. “Voice, teeth, and claws. Voice is best for killing demons, teeth and claws for most natural life forms, and a combination of all three for machines."


For years, Maurice the cat has protected the great tree that stands at the nexus of worlds and bears the flowers of immortality. Maurice has been brave and faithful in his duty but he is getting old, and now his witch-companion has taken in a new batch kittens—including the aggravating Butterscotch. This is an absolutely delightful, big-hearted adventure tale that left me smiling and cheering. Maurice may be getting old, but he is not giving up.

 

“The Genetic Alchemist’s Daughter” by Elaine Cuyegkeng at Pseudopod

Reprinted at Pseudopod, but first appeared in the anthology Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women in 2020

 

When Leto goes to meet clients, she brings her mother’s wares as if they are the trappings of their self-appointed office. In her arms, she brings a winged cat with snow-white plumage, her little feet ending in owl’s talons and one blue eye alongside jade (feline specimens with heterochromia fetch three times the price). A speckled serpent with a forked tongue wraps himself around Leto’s neck like a regent’s gold necklace (base specimen: Atheris hispida). And finally, after a moment’s consideration, Leto carefully selects amber earrings made from the chrysalises of Luminous Moths.

 

A gorgeous, fairy-tale/sci-fi fantasy of genetic alchemy, of winged cats, singing bees, and prodigal children altered to fit their parents’ desires. In a future Manila, Leto has been bred to be her mother’s perfect daughter, a living advertisement of what her mother’s genetic alchemy can achieve. As her mother’s chief assistant, Leto herself creates and modifies specimens for clients. Sometimes that work entails modifying children who were born naturally, but who grew up to disappoint their parents. Sometimes that work means the destruction of memories and personalities. When Leto is assigned the task of thus modifying the three grown daughters of the Dowager, the powerful matriarch of a local dynasty, Leto finds her own memories and identity challenged. This is a stunning story, gorgeous and haunting. Its depiction of parents’ desire for control, for perfect and perfectly obedient, dutiful children (and their belief that they are owed this) hit me hard.


Note: “The Genetic Alchemist’s Daughter” was first published in the anthology Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, edited by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn. My review of the full anthology can be found here.


“The Drowned King” by Ioanna Papadopoulou at Hexagon Magazine, Issue 3

I know why it is important to give our Kings to the sea; why they need to represent us to the Gods in the sea. It is the only reason why our tribe survives, while others, like my old tribe, perish.


Naomi is one of the few survivors of a tribe that was drowned at sea. She was adopted into a new tribe, and wants fiercely to belong. Not only to belong and be accepted—she wants to be at the very top of the hierarchy, to be a Queen and Matriarch. She has shown how strong she is, one of the best swimmers in tribe. She has given birth to a future King. Now she need only fulfill the ritual needed to marry her King. But it is a brutal ritual, one that requires not only strength of body but hardness of heart, as well. Papadopoulou has crafted a stunning, brutal story that keeps the reader’s sympathy and understanding for the main character even as it shows her as participating whole-heartedly in a terrible system. The world-building and characters feel real, and it’s a thought-provoking look at human psychology, at brutal belief systems and traditions and why they’re believed. Yet at the end, there’s a glimmer of hope for change, as well. A powerful, deftly wrought tale.

 

“What the Marsh Remembers” by B. Pladek in Lackington's Magazine, Fall 2020 Archives Issue 22. Available for purchase here 

 Now Rand plunged his senses into the new-laid peat, drawing up saplings from the bog at the marsh’s northern edge and dressing their frail arms with bark. He chose trees to attract the singers: tamaracks for the chickadees; black spruce for the kinglets; blueberry shrub for the waxwings, who called in soft, high voices like the ringing after shellfire.


A story of magical ecosystem restoration, and of love and longing between two veterans following World War I. A gorgeous, lyrical, melancholy story of loss, and of trying to bring back what’s been lost.


 “The Hidden Ones” by K.C. Mead-Brewer in CutBank:The Literary Journal of the University of Montana

Mari needs to stop picturing them both dead at the side of the road. She needs to stop thinking about her ex, Fuckface Jonah with his high-and- tight haircut and Midwest accent, his fingernails too long for Mari’s taste, his knock at the door in the middle of the night, his car passing by her office, her house, her morning coffee spot, or it could be anyone’s car, could be anyone inside that hoodie, that raincoat, that hat, or she could stop thinking about him and so she says,

 

“Do you think all vacations are a little like running away?”

 

Trying to get away from her stalker-ex-boyfriend, Mari has signed up for a vacation with her best friend, Skye. A girls’ road trip in Iceland, a private driving tour. But unsettling things happen in Iceland, too, and can Mari really get away from what she fled? Mead-Brewer’s work often plays in the liminal space between genre and “literary”—a space where you’re never quite sure what’s real. This is a fine example of it, and a tremendously creepy, unsettling tale that slowly, expertly ratchets up the tension and claustrophobia as proceeds.

 

“In the Space of Twelve Minutes” by James Yu in Uncanny

I unpacked my wife’s avatar on a smoggy Beijing morning. She lay naked on the floor of our apartment, her hair fanned out and mingling with the packing peanut afterbirth that had spilled from the box.

 

A scientist couple must separate when one leaves for Mars and the other stays behind to map out the heavens from Earth. The space administration urges the couple to use android “avatars” to try to maintain their relationship. This is a quietly moving story about outer space, about professional ambitions and heart-held dreams, and changing relationships. Quietly heartbreaking and lovely.

 

“For Successful Haunting” by Jessica Reisman in The Dark

Sin was a summer ghost, born of a death sudden as lightning. They slipped on bare ghost soles down the long corridors of an old inn deep in the forest, drifted and danced in the abandoned heft and dust-limned dim of the inn’s pillared halls. With ghost vision, Sin could see the many lanterns, persimmon and gold, that once illuminated the inn’s woodwork and polished floors, and the travelers and locals seated over honey wine and food.

 

A gorgeous ghost story—a lovely flow of darkness, of memories and light and lyrical vengeance.

 

Tony Roomba’s Last Day on Earth” by Maria Haskins at Diabolical Plots

It’s Tony Roomba’s last day on Earth. After two years of working undercover as a vacuum cleaner bot on this boondock planet, he is finally heading home to the Gamma Sector, but his final day is full of challenges. He has to get out of the apartment undetected; has to reach the extraction point in time for teleportation; and he has to submit his intel-report to the Galactic Robotic Alliance (not that they’ll like it much). However, his most immediate and hairiest problem, is that he can’t get Hortense off his back.

 

Hortense, just to let you know, is a cat.

 

And yes, the Roomba-riding cat is indeed a problem.

 

This story is about exactly what its title states, and it’s a wild, fun, and absolutely charming ride.  A welcome bit of hilarity in dark times, and the relationship between the Roomba and the cat is the best.

 

Some older stories

 

Some stories published earlier in 2020, which I only discovered this fall.

 

“The Maid from the Ash: A Life in Pictures” by Gwendolyn Kiste in Weird Whispers

The house—if you could call it that—was spackled together with lark feathers and sinewy thatch and ancient birch faded to a silvery gray. Not one nail or proper board on the whole property, wrote one of the Philadelphia-based investigators called in after the fire. Certainly not a place fit for a young girl.

 

The story of a girl and her house found in the ashes of a forest fire, untouched. A darkly magical tale, cleverly told as the captions to a museum exhibit. It’s about wildness and belonging, and about do-gooders trying to take a girl away from where she belongs. It’s also about something I’ve been thinking of a lot lately: about celebrity in the Internet age, about people seen as images for consumption. In this story, the person behind the image is forever unknowable.

 

“Advanced Word Problems in Portal Math” by Aimee Picchi at Daily Science Fiction

Penny scrubs the dishes extra hard as she thinks about the unknowns in her life, like what she could do if she weren't expected to excel at everything. She dries her hands on her leggings and reapplies her strawberry lip balm, then walks through the split-level house, running her hands along drywall and peering into closets. She hopes to find a portal to a world with a warm patriarchal figure who will encourage her to spend long days in a library without any housework duties. After two hours, she gives up.

 

Portal worlds, and the assurance that it’s never too late.

 

“Everybody’s Got A Hungry Heart” by Louis Evans at Translunar Travelers Lounge

You could call him a Manic Pixie Mean Boy. It’s true as far as it goes, but it’s kind of like referring to Babylon the Great, City of Cities, Mother of Empires, as a “premodern metropolitan statistical area.” Something has been lost in translation.

 

A deliriously fun story of two supernaturally beautiful humans, nuclear weapons of seduction, one of whom was literally created in a lab (Agent Heartbreak) and the other who appears to be an immortal who has inspired artists from Homer to Shakespeare to Hemingway and beyond. This is the story of what happens when these agents of desire meet on a lonely hearts cruise. Fun, funny, satisfying, and also unexpectedly poignant.

 

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