This month brought us stories about a strange and powerful necklace, unexpected extraterrestrial life, a haunted town, a haunting spaceship, a superhero struggling with homework, new lives, and old sins.
“The Lights Go out, One by One“, by Kofi Nyameye in Asimov’s March/April 2019
A crew awakes from cryo-sleep in a spaceship far away from our solar system, on a mission to save Earth from certain destruction. Kofi Nyameye’s story begins in a way that brings to mind many a classic sci-fi tale, then blindsides you in the best way. The facts of the mission, the scope of the danger humanity is facing, and what ultimately happens to the crew: all put an almighty twist on familiar “heroes save the Earth” tropes. Nyameye infuses the narrative with a terse sense of humor while simultaneously trying her best to break your heart. It’s one of several excellent stories in Asimov’s special tribute issue to its former editor, the late Gardner Dozois.
“The Crying Bride“, by Carrie Laben in The Dark
Carrie Laben has a knack for crafting quietly unsettling stories, often set in worlds that seem familiar, until you glimpse the eerie darkness moving just beneath the surface. The narrator of “The Crying Bride” is an old woman being interviewed by a young relative who wants to find out more about their family’s past. As the narrator tells the story of her childhood—about a necklace found under a strange apple tree, about what happened once she started wearing it, about her abusive uncle, and a family that seemed unable to understand or accept her—we realize that more than one deep, dark secret has shaped the lives of both the narrator and her visitor in profound ways. It’s a haunting story about the power of finding your purpose in life and defying those who would hold you back. Fans of Laben’s work should also keep an eye out for her debut novel A Hawk in the Woods, coming later this year.
“Due By the End of the Week“, by Brandon O’Brien in Fireside Fiction
Kelly and Derek go to the same school and are both facing some serious life-challenges: a) they have to complete an important school assignment with someone they’d rather not work with, and b) they live in a city that is under attack by aliens. Well, the aliens are mainly a problem for Kelly, who is stretched to the max, what with being a superhero and trying to maintain her grades. I love the action and humor of this story, and how O’Brien lets Derek and Kelly take turns as narrators, giving us two very different perspectives on both the crisis facing the city and their no less fraught attempts to work together on that assignment. It’s a rollicking, riveting tale, and makes some good points giving others a chance to show us who they really are before we judge them.
“A Catalog of Storms“, by Fran Wilde in Uncanny Magazine
In this fantasy story by Fran Wilde, weathermen don’t forecast the weather on TV. Instead, they wield magic and name storms as they battle the weather itself, which has become far more perilous than it used to be. (To whit: “The storms got smarter than us….after we broke the weather.”) Only some have the inherent ability o become weathermen, but it’s a magic that comes with a price: you must leave your family, and you are ever at risk of turning into clouds, rain, or lightning. Wilde writes with empathy and insight about the relationships within families, especially between siblings; her characters feel utterly real, no matter how fantastical the setting. Here, she crafts a powerful story about children who are willing and able to fight, even when their mother would rather keep them out of harm’s way. For more of Wilde’s work, check out her middle-grade novel Riverland, arriving in April of this year.
“Ghosts of Bari“, by Wren Wallis in Shimmer
In a strange part of space, a salvage vessel with a rugged and motley crew encounters a ship so ancient it should not even exist. It does not respond to their hails, but in spite of its age, its systems appear to be functional, if sleeping. It’s pretty much an irresistible opening for a science fiction story, and Wren Wallis fulfills and exceeds expectations for what might follow with a taut, suspenseful, and beautifully wrought tale about the ghosts of the past, the stories we share, and the things we’ll do, even under the most extreme circumstances, to keep our humanity intact. “Ghosts of Bari” is the final story in the final issue of Shimmer, and it’s a gripping, profoundly moving tale that marks a fitting end for one of the best zines in speculative fiction.
“Debtor’s Door“, by Sarah Cavar in Vulture Bones
“Debtor’s Door” takes the form of letters from a dedicated student who has just entered a new “expedited undergrad program.” With each missive grows ever stronger the feeling that something is not quite right at the school; it seems the students are somehow (literally) being consumed, their body parts slowly disappearing. Cavar skillfully uses the medium of the increasingly erratic correspondence to convey a growing sense of unease and wrongness, with prose suffused with an air of encroaching existential horror. It’s a remarkably potent illustration of the damage stress and unreasonable expectations can inflict, distorting and disfiguring our thoughts, our sense of self, our very bodies.
“Life Sentence“, by Matthew Baker in Lightspeed
A man returns home after being convicted of a serious crime. His punishment is a life sentence, but it will not be served in prison. Instead, he has undergone a procedure that removes all memory of the crime and of his life and thoughts from the time he committed the crime. To facilitate his reintegration into society, he’s not supposed to try to find out what he did, and his family and those around him have been told not to talk about it. As strange as the situation is, he tries to fit his new self into his old life, but keeps wondering if it wouldn’t be better to at least know what he did. Wouldn’t it be better to remember, no matter how painful the truth is? Matthew Baker has crafted a thoughtful, wrenching story that provides no easy answers.
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion“, by Alix E. Harrow in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Eefa is running from the city of Xot, from the Emperor and her ceaseless war-making, from her own sacred duties as a healer and a husband, from her near-daughters and near-son. From her wife. It is a terrible, cowardly thing to do, but not as terrible or cowardly as staying where she was.” It’s a quite a feat to fit an epic tale of love and war and betrayal into the parameters of a short story, but Alix E. Harrow does just that in this lush and harrowing fantasy tale. Eefa lives in a world at war, and she’s married to the realm’s foremost fighter. Like every citizen, she is expected to sacrifice whatever is needed, including her children, to keep the war-machine going. When she decides to rebel, she risks losing everything. It’s a memorable and satisfying story of romance, tragedy, and action, set in a uniquely imagined world.
“The Message“, by Vanessa Fogg in The Future Fire
Vanessa Fogg writes subtle and intricate speculative fiction that packs a big emotional punch, and this story is an excellent introduction to her work. “The Message” blends a hard science fiction story of a mysterious extraterrestrial message with a poignant tale about long-distance friendship, a family drifting apart, and the joys of fan-fiction. The result is a luminous and compelling, a story about our longing for contact and connection across vast distances, and about how relationship can alter our lives. If you enjoy it, look for Fogg’s “Traces of Us” in Neil Clarke’s upcoming The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4 (available in July).
“Quiet the Dead“, by Micah Dean Hicks in Nightmare
“Quiet the Dead” is set in a run-down, working-class town where life revolves around the local pork processing plant and people are haunted by the ghosts of the dead. These ghosts are not pale apparitions; they cling to the living, invading their bodies and tainting their minds. Kay tries to keep herself and her family afloat, and every day she struggles not to give in to the urges of her ghost. “The ghost that haunted Kay moved through her blood like gasoline. It craved to fight, its need to blacken the eye of the world the only thing that kept it from slipping into death.” This is one of the most visceral and disturbing horror stories I’ve encountered recently, and it made me think deeply about the ways in which despair and violence can poison every facet of society, and how difficult it can be to break free from the past.
What’s the best SFF short story you read in February?