Short fiction recs! July--Sept 2023
Some short fiction that I read and loved, from July through September.
“The Sand Knows Its Way Home” by L. Chan at Reckoning Magazine
He would have told them that the village of his youth was a small and perfect thing, but what is a small and perfect thing compared to the growing appetite of a nascent mega-city? That appetite was all it took for them to murder a village. This is not the story that the groups come here to listen to, not when they have the sparkling sea before them and the shining city behind.
Cheng Boon once lived in a fishing village on Semakau Island. But Singapore’s government took his village’s land to create a landfill, relocating all the village’s inhabitants to the mainland. Now Cheng Boon gives tours of his former home to students and other curious visitors. One day one of the tourists catches his eye, and Cheng Boon realizes that he has something in common with another man who has lost his home. . . A delicately lovely piece about displacement and ghosts, about the costs of “progress” and human connections (connections to nature and land, connections to a community) severed. And about the return of wildlife and nature to an island, and a new connection born.
“The Giants Among Us” by Megan Chee in Clarkesworld
On an island in the northern hemisphere, there is a small community called the Kadyon. In the summer, the Kadyon sprawl like a brightly colored bazaar around the sleeping body of a giant feline creature, sheltered from the sun by its massive shadow. The summer weather is mild; warm rains and humid winds. The people sleep on woven rugs in the open air, trusting and unafraid. The Kadyon have heard of lies,and thievery, and murder, but those are foreign peculiarities. In the shadow of their sleeping giant, they have nothing to fear.
A story of marvels and wonder. The narrator is a member of Project Harmony, a group of research expeditions aimed at studying the cultures and peoples of intelligent species throughout the universe. As part of these research studies, the narrator is exploring a planet whose peoples have centered their societies around a number of huge, slow-moving giants. One group of people shelter on and by the body of a giant feline; another group lives within the body of a long-dead giant, eating the fungus that grows in the giant’s corpse. The narrator exchanges information with a colleague who encounters wonders of their own on other worlds. But the story isn’t all travelogue and delight, for Project Harmony was conceived with an urgent mission. Chee’s story skillfully interweaves the wondrous details of her protagonist’s explorations with the larger backstory of how Project Harmony came to be—of a brutal war in the background. This story reminds me of some of Ken Liu’s work in its lyrical use of sweeping science fiction to evoke wonder and awe, to discuss big ideas, and to also tell a human story.
“Collaboration?” by Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim in Uncanny
Worlds pop into existence, composed by clicking keyboards or in spraying foam on waves of thought; tucked away in spells, algorithms, entangled particles, recipes; evoked by waving wands; sketched by twirling ley-line brushes; assembled by spinning quantum mundistructors. They’ve been doing it for eons.
But recently, there has been a pause. “I’ve lost it,” he says to her, despondent. “I haven’t been able to make a new world in sixteen terakernels.”
“Same. I haven’t conjured one in ages.” The barest wisp of an idea skitters around the edges of her brain. She’s always admired his worlds, so elegantly structured. “Want to collaborate? Maybe we could spark each other.”
Writers Ken Liu and Caroline Yoachim have done a collaboration on the theme of collaboration! In a series of 7 vignettes, they explore collaborations in art, science, and life. Each vignette is self-contained—complete stories or poems or fragments—loosely linked by recurring and echoing phrases, and the recurring themes of muses and inspiration. Among my favorites are a flash story set in a world where everyone has a separate mirror-self; a story about a fifteenth-century French alchemist-witch distracted by a mischievous anti-muse; and the last story, about a goddess-like muse and the poet she inspires.
“The Passing of the Dragon” by Ken Liu at Tor
She paints in a feverish state. No sleep, no food, no shifts at the Fresh Food Basket. She collapses to the floor, eyes still on the unfinished canvas, and slips into a dreamless slumber even as she tells herself she’ll be closing her eyes only for a second.
Kay is a struggling artist, her work largely unnoticed and misunderstood even by her artist friends and colleagues. One winter she makes a pilgrimage to the home of her favorite poet and experiences a transcendent, life-changing vision. Feverishly, she tries to capture that vision on canvas. She thinks she has created her best work yet, yet again her painting is initially met with bafflement. But then a series of coincidences and luck make her painting go viral, and she learns that fame and “success” is not all that she’d hoped… Liu has such smart, smart things here to say about Internet culture and social media storms, about art and the response to art, about the way people try to slot art and artists into their own pre-conceived boxes and causes and ideas. And about the need to keep making art, anyway. A brilliant piece, lit through with empathy and generosity. One of Liu’s best.
“Always Be Returning” by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Sunday Morning Transport
It’s August when Demeter’s daughter returns. Demeter is in a fishing boat, pulling at the heavy nets with her time-dotted hands alongside the young men and women. The people on the boat don’t see her for who she is. Terrible and divine, motherly and familiar. But she doesn’t mind.
An absolutely gorgeous retelling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, with a focus on their complicated mother-daughter bond. With the turn of each new season Persephone appears in a different form, while her mother’s age and power also changes with the seasons. There is pain here, and denial, and the eternal tug-of-war between mothers and daughters as power shifts in a relationship—as a little girl grows up and begins to claim power and independence away from her mother. But there’s also reconciliation, and acceptance, and change.
“Whisper Songs” by Lyndsie Manusos in Apex Magazine
Her daughter had kept her up all night. Nothing worked. All of the books she’d bookmarked, all the advice from blogs she’d read, and the pediatrician’s recommendations jotted on sticky notes in the nursery … they all fell into a black hole. Her daughter had cried and cried, sucking on her breast until the sting of her chapped skin became numb.
Early motherhood—those first disorienting days with a new baby, particularly a colicky baby, and particularly when a new mother is isolated, all on her own—can be harrowing. Manusos captures those early, harrowing days with pitch-perfection. But she also sets her story in a world of wider desperation, where red tides fill the sea and songbirds fall to earth dying. A mysterious organization harvests the songs of dead birds, collecting their endangered music with syringes. In this strange, apocalyptic future-world, the narratives of three different characters intersect, and Mavis’s desperation compels her to a fateful decision. A strange, dark, masterfully constructed story, with an ending of eerie beauty.
“Kwong’s Bath” by Angela Liu in Khoreo
Our parents were thrilled when Kwong was selected for an Upgrade. That precious little neural mesh that will give her access to the Floating City and all its endless possibilities. She’ll be one of the ten lucky Outer Ring residents selected this year who can move to the City once her surgeries are complete. She’ll be our family’s first. The beginning of a new, better chapter, Dad says, even though she won’t remember being a part of our family once she’s there.
Kwong has been selected for an Upgrade and should be thrilled. The hopes and expectations of her family, and her entire community, are on her shoulders. But the first in a series of Upgrade surgeries has a strange side effect: Kwong begins to see dead people from her life while she’s in her bath. A heavy, wrenching, and moving story about familial expectations, pressure, desperation, guilt, and sisterly love.
“Quantum Love” by Sylvia Heike in Flash Fiction Online
The quantum computer is and isn’t in love. It stands in the darkness of the lab, a nine-foot golden cylinder crowned with a waterfall of gleaming wires, waiting for Natalie, the lead scientist, to come back.
And in a change from dark and heavy stories. . . Heike’s flash tale of a quantum computer in love is an absolute charmer, with a delightful twist.
Stories from Small Wonders Magazine, Issue 3
Small Wonders is a new magazine of speculative flash fiction and poetry, publishing both original and reprinted work. I read through the complete contents of issue 3 and found some truly lovely work. While I highlight a few of my favorite stories below, I recommend reading the complete issue: all the stories and poems are lovely, and united by recurring themes of change, resilience, and hope
“How My Sister Talked Me Into Necromancy During the Quarantine” by Rachel K. Jones
Lila, sweet and unassuming in her necromancer robes, gives me a tiny little wave. “Don’t be mad, Becca.”
“We’ve talked about this.” It was a condition of her move-in deal. Half rent on the 1st, take out the trash on Wednesdays, and no summoning in the house.
A charming story of roommate tensions, vampires, zombies, and more during Covid lockdown.
“A Gardener Teaches His Son to Enrich the Soil and Plan for the Future,” by Jennifer Hudak
We gardeners have been dealing with pests for centuries. Between the slugs and the aphids and the deer and the rabbits and what have you, we fight for our crop every year. The zombies are no different.
Gardening and fighting off zombies come together beautifully in an unusual tale of resilience and survival.
“So You Want to Eat An Omnalik Starfish” by Brian Hugenbruch
It may take time to find a starfish on Omnalik Beach. You’ve seen the holos of that halfway land between Mare Estrellas and the Unyielding Void, but they do not do justice to the glittering diamond dust of the shore, or capture the dullness of the creatures’ outer cover.
First published in the late-and-lamented Syntax and Salt magazine, this reprint is a gorgeous, lyrical tale of grief and love.