Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: February 2018

Uncanny issue 20 cover art: “Sleepless on the Silk Road” by Tran Nguyen

February brought a wealth of amazing new speculative short fiction, but then that’s what every month is like. Keeping up with all the fabulous stories being published is pretty much impossible, but I do what I can. Here are ten stories that caught my eye last month.

Mother Tongues“, by S. Qiouyi Lu in Asimov’s Science Fiction (Jan/Feb 2018 issue)
This is a quietly devastating near-future science fiction story, where technology can be used to extract, and sell, your language proficiency. It’s a story that will hit you right in the feels if you (like me) are an immigrant, or the child of immigrants, and if you regularly use a different language than your mother tongue. With piercing precision, S. Qiouyi Lu explores the ties between language, social class, culture, family, and identity, and how frayed and vulnerable those ties can be. Confession: this story literally brought me to tears and made me want to call my mom.

The Starship and the Temple Cat“, by Yoon Ha Lee in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Yoon Ha Lee‘s fabulous story is part of Beneath Ceaseless Skies‘ Science Fantasy Month, and it is a wistful, eerie, and lovely mix of cat story, ghost story, and science fiction. There is space travel and space battles, there are ghosts and spirits, a haunted space ship, and a cat that goes about its cat business even though it’s dead. It makes for a moving, stirring story that shows how cats really are the best (and most obnoxious) creatures, even when they’re ghosts.

The Wild Ones“, by Vanessa Fogg in Bracken Magazine
A beautiful and poignant piece of short fiction that deals with longing and fear, adolescence and parenthood, and (bonus!) the magic of fall. Fogg expertly blends fantasy into our present-day world, with the raucous Wild Hunt chasing across the skies above the suburbs, led by the perilous Queen of the Hunt, with new teenagers joining her in the skies every year. A mother watches and worries when her daughter gets caught up in the excitement of the Hunt, and Fogg perfectly captures the mother’s conflicted emotions – wanting to protect her child from the very same things she longs to experience again for herself.

 Umbernight“, by Carolyn Ives Gilman in Clarkesworld
“Umbernight” is a riveting story that is rich with scientific detail, engaging characters, and vivid world-building. It takes place on an inhospitable planet where a group of misguided human settlers once established a new society. Their descendants cling to life on this alien world, and with a perceptive eye for detail, Carolyn Ives Gilman shows us the (rather hilarious) power dynamics and personality conflicts that play out in this small community. The story follows a group of heroes and misfits who set out together on a dangerous mission that starts out OK, but eventually goes off the rails. Gilman expertly escalates the tension as the planet reveals just how dangerous it is, and she provides just enough gallows humour to light the way.

A Cookpot, a Knife, a Pile of Rags“, by Virginia M. Mohlere in Cicada Magazine
This is a brilliant and refreshingly original twist on the story of Snow White. Mohlere’s story takes place after the fairy-tale has ended, and explores what happens when Snow White rejects her happily-ever-after. Where do you go, what do you do, if you don’t fit into the life everyone expects you to want? I read Mohlere’s story in the days after Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing, and it reminded me forcefully of Le Guin’s writing, especially in the way it anchors magic and fantasy in everyday life and everyday struggles.

Ingredients“, by Craig DeLancey in Spectacle
Spectacle
is a new magazine of speculative fiction, and this story is part of its premiere issue. It’s a quietly funny and moving tale about an artificial intelligence trying to find its place in an ever-changing workplace where even AIs have to deal with job-loss. The story is told from the point of view of an AI tasked with providing information to people buying groceries, though it seems to crave a deeper, more meaningful interaction with humans. DeLancey masterfully captures the bewilderment of both humans and AIs adrift in a society that treats everyone as disposable, whether they are artificial or not.

Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse“, S.B. Divya in Uncanny Magazine
S.B. Divya‘s powerful and deeply unsettling story is set in a near-future society that feels almost too real for comfort. Certain people, opinions, and medical procedures have been outlawed in parts of the United States, and the authorities ruthlessly pursue anyone who breaks these laws. The apocalypse referred to in the story’s title is not what the kind the word usually brings to mind. It’s one that devastates people and families and communities when the state tries to destroy their freedom, their identities, and their loved ones. A gripping read that really shook me.

He Dies Where I Die“, by Michael Harris Cohen in The Dark
In this wrenching and spine-chilling horror story, a miner meets someone…unexpected in a mine shaft. The apparition has a familiar face and voice, taunting and tempting him, luring him ever deeper into the mine with promises of riches to be found further underground. Terror lurks just beneath the thin veneer of reality in this story, and I loved every deliciously terrifying bit of it.

An Equation of State“, by Robert Reed in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Jan/Feb 2018 issue)
Aliens arrive in our solar system; they build, they plot, they hide, they wait for the enemy to arrive, but the enemy never seems to appear. In this unique riff on the old-school alien invasion story, the tale is told from the perspective of an alien diplomat who eventually heads to Earth on a secretive mission. Reed’s story has an epic feel to it, as it takes us on a strange ride through space and time, and in this web of war and strife and intrigue, small things – a horse, a rat, a boy – might change the course of history.

Four-Point Affective Calibration“, by Bogi Takács in Lightspeed
This powerful story does a lot with few words, exploring the longing for, and the pitfalls of, communication—between humans, and between humans and aliens. Its true brilliance, for me, lies in how perfectly Takács captures the voice of the story’s protagonist—an immigrant, marginalized and often misunderstood by others in their new home country. Bogi Takács is one of my favorite writers of speculative fiction and poetry, and here they weave together the strands of a deceptively simple story into a complex and moving whole.

What’s the best short story you read last month?

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