This month, we read stories of feuding grandmothers, seawolves and robot beetles, ghosts of various kinds, AI mothers and fathers, nightmares in space, and nightmares in the office and on the subway, and of awakening to life and the afterlife.
“One Thousand Beetles in a Jumpsuit“, by Dominica Phetteplace in Lightspeed
In this tremendously fun-to-read science fiction novelette, a woman called Isla has taken on a job that means she’ll be hiking through the mysterious, barren wasteland called Robot Country. Her job description is somewhat lacking in precise detail, but she’s been hired (and wired) by a company to observe how the robots and drones in the area are performing, and to report anything and everything she sees there. However, after interacting with the resident robots and drones, Isla soon understands that they might have other plans for her, and that her mission is going to be neither simple nor straightforward. Phetteplace has a wonderful way of writing engaging, tech-infused science fiction with a gripping human edge—this particular story even includes an absolutely delightful meet-cute romantic encounter. This novelette is part of a series of stories (another is forthcoming in Lightspeed), and I cannot wait to revisit this world.
“Signal“, by L. D. Lewis in Fireside Fiction
“Signal” puts a different and subversive twist on the post-apocalypse. Mankind has been almost wiped off the surface of the Earth by The Colossus, a giant beast that has arisen from the bottom of the ocean, attacking civilization and destroying the humans that try to fight back. Our final, faint hope is a ragtag army of children who have been forced into service and trained to fight using battle-mechs. But one of them, Signal, has been working on a rather different plan for survival, one that might also mean freedom for her and the other children. Lewis paints a picture of a society that is at least as monstrous as the beast it sends its children to fight, and I love the way it subverts expectations of the monster-fighting genre. (No spoilers, but you’ll want to get some mint, perhaps, when you’re done reading this!)
“Seonag and the Seawolves“, by M. Evan MacGriogair in Tor.com
“This is the story of Seonag and the wolves, and the wolves and the waves.” MacGriogair’s tale is told in the spellbinding voice of a clan storyteller, unfolding a narrative he played a part in as a young man, many years earlier. Seonag is born “on Là Buidhe Bealltainn as the women go out into the mist under that jumble of clouds to wash their faces in the morning dew.” She is born with an unsettling kind of magic about her, born different into a village where her difference is known by all and feared by some. When her parents choose to emigrate, leaving their home behind, Seonag does not leave. That difficult choice sets events in motion that moves the tale from the real world into the world of legend and lore. There is a beautiful melody and rhythm to this riveting tale, and the prose sings from the first line to the last.
“It Is Not So, It Was Not So“, by Megan Arkenberg in The Dark
Mrs. Voss lives in a house with two (sometimes three) ghosts. They are former tenants and have lingered there for years, speaking to her, bound to her by their lives and their deaths. Mrs. Voss now has a new tenant, Karolin, who seems haunted, maybe even hunted, by her past. Karolin also has vivid nightmares about a mob, coming for her, a mob “wearing masks—foxes, horses, birds. Or maybe they have animal heads.” Arkenberg expertly unspools this subtle, quiet, and harrowing horror story. Her attention to unsettling, evocative details, both internal and external, is exquisite.
“In the Stillness Between the Stars“, by Mercurio D. Rivera in Asimov’s Sept/Oct 2019
Dr. Emilio Garcia has left his family behind on Earth and signed up to be part of a mission to establish a human settlement on a distant planet. It’s a journey that is supposed to take a few centuries, and he was supposed to spend it frozen in his REMpod aboard a ship called The Seed. Instead, he’s awakened before The Seed has even left the solar system. One of the ship’s engineers is suffering from vivid and debilitating nightmares that seem to be bleeding into her waking hours. Soon, Dr. Garcia realizes that the nightmares are more real than he initially believed, and that a strange, dark presence seems to be stalking the ship. Rivera’s story is tense and taut, blending science fiction and horror, and I love how it explores both the promise and excitement of exploring the universe, and the debilitating guilt a parent might feel if they decide to leave not just Earth, but their family behind.
“The Second Nanny“, by Djuna translated by Sophie Bowman in Clarkesworld
A gripping and thought-provoking story set in a distant future where AIs called “the Mothers” rule the populated planets, satellites, and space stations of the solar system after defeating a group of violent, war-mongering AIs called “the Fathers.” Seorin arrives to help a colony of genetically modified human children after the woman who was their guardian dies. Something very bad is on its way to the colony, and what follows is a space-showdown of epic proportions. There are fascinating and deep thoughts on the meaning of freedom, the use of technology, the importance of family, and the future of humanity in this story. It’s translated from Korean by Sophie Bowman, and was published with the support of Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea).
“A House With a Home“, by Jon Mayo in Anathema
Do you need a feel-good ghost story? One that’s somewhat unsettling at first, but then turns out to be life-affirming and even heartwarming? Well, look no further because Jon Mayo has written just the thing you need. This is a ghost story with a difference—with a ghost that does not want to murder or possess, but simply needs kindness and understanding (and maybe a video game or two). You’ll find it in the latest, and very enjoyable, issue of Anathema, a zine that publishes speculative fiction “by queer people of color on every range of the LGBTQIA spectrum.”
“Glass Eyes in Porcelain Faces“, by Jack Westlake in Black Static #70
In Westlake’s bone-chilling horror story, a man thinks he might be losing his mind. Every day, people he knows, people at the office, on the subway, on the street, keep changing. They are no longer human, their faces turned to porcelain, their eyes turned to glass. “Imagine waking up each morning and wondering who will have changed….Imagine they look at you. Imagine how it feels when, despite the change, despite them not being them anymore, they nod at you like usual.” No one else notices the change, not even his wife, who suggests he should seek medical help. Westlake tightens the vice, deliberately and skillfully, as the man begins to fear who he will lose next. And when he finally tries to do something about it, the story reveals its final nightmarish twist. Devastating and deeply unsettling psychological horror, this is the kind of story that gets deep under your skin.
“1078 Reasons“, by Aidan Doyle in Translunar Travelers Lounge
Translunar Travelers Lounge is a brand new SFF zine with a mission to “to explore the fun side of fantasy and science fiction.” Its inaugural issue features a selection of excellent stories, including this wonderful entry about two feuding Japanese grandmothers, both magic-users, who have to join forces in order to save their granddaughter. The women have been feuding for years and practice two very different kinds of magic: Minako favors number magic (plucking especially lucky prime numbers from her garden, for example), while Ishikawa dabbles in “the magic of light and shadow.” In his entertaining tale, Doyle brings to life the magic and his characters with style and a great sense of humor, and also imagines a magic battle that is unlike any you’ve ever read before.
“This Was Never a Vigil“, by V. Medina in Capricious #12
A beautifully crafted puzzle-box of a story, “This Was Never a Vigil” begins with the intriguing lines, “When you wake up, you see two notes written on the back of your hands. The first says to take a drink of water. The second tells you to come up with a name for yourself.” After that, Medina carefully and skillfully unlocks the story. Again and again the scene of awakening plays out, with slight and fascinating and similarities and differences each time, but with an increasing sense that something forgotten, or someone forgotten, is coming to the surface. An unforgettable story about love and the afterlife, from an outstanding issue of Capricious.
What’s the best SFF short story you read last month?