Short fiction recs! Nov-Dec 2021
This is very late, but at least I did get this in before the end of the month. Some beautiful stories I read at the end of last year, from last November and December.
“The Language Birds Speak” by Rebecca Campbell in Clarkesworld
The deep sea of meaning that underlies those flimsy little words. The richest parts of our selves beyond the reach of language, and words only float on it, moved by currents far deeper than anything they communicate, a rich, dark inlet of the great sea of meaning we cannot ever hope to speak.
“But what if,” Tom asked, conspiratorial, “there was a language that bypassed conscious representation the way snakes and faces do? It’s more like pheromones. Like music or empathy. If you hug someone for thirty seconds, you’ll both release oxytocin. It’s not about the mind—it’s about body speaking to body. It’s a kind of truth that language can never capture.”
A fascinating story about a primal language that says what ordinary human speech cannot. A language of “birds and angels, of the spheres, the sounds that had knit ylem into reality as we know it.” A language of power. But this is also a story about the bond between a mother and child, a mother-child pair who can speak this language. The mystical-science fiction concepts which Campbell describes are fascinating, but what struck me just as hard were her evocative descriptions of parenting a young child; this story took me straight back to my own kids’ inarticulate toddler days. A beautifully written, compelling story of motherhood, children, and language.
“The Catcher in the Eye” by Ai Jiang in The Dark Magazine
I kept my right eye closed because I saw ghosts through it. My parents thought they were imaginary friends I would soon outgrow—they weren’t. But what did they know anyway?
A ghost story that goes places you don’t expect. An absolute stunner of a tale, with images that become progressively more bizarre as the tension heightens. An intensely dark story about social and family expectations, and the ghosts of perfection.
“Space Pirate Queen of the Ten Billion Utopias” by Elly Bangs at Lightspeed
Ursa Major got right the fuck out of our universe on the very afternoon she learned there were other options. It was the lucky break of her life that she just happened to be there, a short sprint from one of those points where the alien aethertrain briefly punched through into our world: a multidimensional mechanical worm intersecting our reality as a rush of vaguely boxcar-like shapes strung between entry and exit portals, thirty-odd feet above one suburb or another, a cornfield, a strip mall, a stadium.
A marvelous rollicking thrill ride of a story. Seventeen-year old Ursa Major has escaped our world to ride the aethertrains through the ten billion utopias. She hijacks her own train and crowns herself a space pirate queen. She falls in love. But there are wounds underneath her bravado. A wonderfully fun and funny piece that looks at the wounds of our world even as it also spins through glittering purple utopias. Gorgeous fun that’s also ultimately hopeful and uplifting.
“White Rose, Red Rose” by Rachel Swirsky in Uncanny
That morning, there was a white rose on my windowsill, and my heart cracked.
In a city under foreign occupation, coded messages are left on a windowsill to a member of the resistance. As the layers of this world are unpeeled, we learn that one woman must do what no one should ever have to do. This story is just over flash length, and yet it packs in so much rich atmosphere and world-building. It’s a nightmarish fairy tale, aching and evocative. A perfect little tale of horror.
“I Had Never Been a Candle” by Freydis Moon in The Deadlands
I had never been a candle until after I died. I had never been a shoe, either. But yesterday, I’d fit myself into the rubber sole on my mother’s sandal and went with her to the garden. The day before that, I’d decided to be a curtain, billowing as my father carried a newborn lamb through the living room, and before that, bundled wool my sister had crocheted into a hat.
An achingly gorgeous story of death and life. Emilio has died, but he lingers in the warmth of his family, becoming a candle at dinner, a necklace on his sister, his mother’s basket and the hammer in his father’s hand. A story about family and about how life goes on. A story about love.
“The Cold Calculations” by Aimee Ogden at Clarkesworld
He grabs her and crushes her against him, and she cries like he thinks babies must cry before they get taught that pain is something to hide.
“Pain is a renewable resource.”
“The Cold Equations,” published by Tom Godwin in 1954, is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time. It’s a story about pragmatism, about a terrible situation in which a girl must sacrifice herself for the greater good. It’s the philosophical “trolley problem” played out on a space ship. But what if the entire setup is flawed, Ogden argues in this blistering response to Godwin’s classic. What engineer designed a system with so little slack—a space shuttle operating on such thin fuel margins that the slight weight of a teen stowaway would doom both the shuttle and a world? Why do we tolerate systems that disregard risk for profit, that sacrifice people for profit? Ogden’s story moves through time and space, from the tense setting of a space shuttle to the famous “Radium Girls” of 1920s America, to a garment factory in India, and more. Each vignette is a depiction of a real moment in time when people were sacrificed for profit. They’re examples of corporate profit that runs off human pain. Ogden gives us a sharp, furious, moving story that interrogates the systems behind what might seem like inevitable suffering, that argues that the “cold, unfeeling universe” of The Cold Equations (and that many cite as simply the way the world works) is actually human-made.
“That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell in Uncanny
Mr. Bird’s bites only bleed when Mr. Bird is near and upset with his familiar.
This means Mr. Bird isn’t nearby. Not nearby yet.
Anton runs a fingertip over the holes in his skin, worrying them. He dreads that they will start bleeding at any moment. He stares so intently that he doesn’t know he’s panicking until someone knocks on the bathroom door.
Anton was once the familiar of the terrible Mr. Brid. Anton escaped. Now he’s trying to build a new life for himself with friends who have become found family. But Mr. Bird and the other familiars are not so ready to let Anton go. . . This is a grippingly tense story of horror and trauma that’s also filled with tenderness and healing. There’s a quietness to Wiswell’s prose—even as it evokes horror and white-knuckle tension—that I love. The ending is earned and beautiful. One of my favorites from 2021.
I read some absolutely marvelous flash fiction toward the end of 2021, enough to earn a separate category here.
“Writing You” by Sharang Biswas in Lightspeed
Once the Mourning is done, a procession of Mortuarians will carry your body to the Bindery, where they will flay it with sharp, silver knives.
A strange and lovely piece about mourning and memory, where the body of a loved one is turned into a beautiful book.
Death takes much and in return it offers Susan P— only clarity. She finds herself in a great gray desert and knows her life has ended.
Many readers have found themselves disturbed by the fate of Susan Pevensie in the Chronicles of Narnia. This is a lovely reimagining of Susan’s life—and of what happens after her life is over.
“Dangling” by Maura Yzmore at The Molotov Cocktail
When they thought the other one wasn’t looking, Ronnie and Billy glanced at each other and thought the forbidden thought, that they felt happy, the kind of happiness that permeates one’s whole body from the tips of one’s toes to the follicles in one’s hair, happier than they’d ever been. That perhaps bodies floating toward the sky was not the worst thing that could have happened.
A surreal little story of bodies floating mysteriously into the air, and a couple having great time together in the midst of it all, which somehow perfectly captures the disorienting mood of our strange times.
And finally, two stories by a writer I’ve only recently discovered. Surreal, brilliant, burning flash pieces by K-Ming Chang.
“Deal” by K-Ming Chang in Wigleaf
On the phone, the woman responded to me: We are a service. We collect your unused years and refurbish them for future use. Unused years, I repeated. Yes, she said, the bad ones, the wasted ones. The ones you spent drunk or in bed. Years you grieved or spent on sadness. Anything counts, she told me, like years one-through-three. Who remembers those?
“Finger” by K-Ming Chang in Wigleaf
We hear on TV that if you find a finger in your bowl of chili at Wendy's, you can sue them and live on that money forever. We debate whose finger to sever, how we will split the money, but in the end, only one girl is willing: Gao XiaoCai, whose mother needs surgery to remove her spleen because it is hardening.