Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: January 2019

“The Triumphant Ward,” by Sandro Castelli

This month, we read stories of transdimensional spaceships, men in wolf’s clothing, scheming bots, brain implants and memory transfers, time travel, transformation, siblings and families, and unravelling secrets.

The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir“, by Karin Tidbeck on
After leaving her home on Earth, Saga works as a janitor on the transdimensional spaceship Skidbladnir, a mysterious interstellar vessel with an equally mysterious crew. While Skidbladnir transports its passengers to far-flung stars and planets, Saga begins to form a strange bond with the ship itself. That bond is tested once she finds out the ship’s true nature, which is stranger than Saga might have imagined. This is a wondrous, must-read story by an author who always brings an earthy yet giddily unique vision of the future to her stories, often combining a retro sensibility (in this story, it’s the presence of videotapes) with unusual points of view and original takes on what life in space might be like. Check out Tidbeck’s novel Amatka for another plunge into her piercing and evocative speculative vision.

Beyond Comprehension“, by Russell Nichols in Fireside Fiction
Brian has just paid more money than he could really afford to make his son André a “BookWorm Baby,” giving the boy an implant that grants him immediate access to more books than most people read in a lifetime. At first, Brian is sure at that he’s done what’s best for his child, innately providing him the academic opportunities Brian never had. But he soon realizes there are consequences he didn’t foresee… This is a terrific near-future science fiction story that brings technology down to a very human level, exploring its effects on individuals, relationships, and identity. Fireside‘s presentation is to be commended as well: the online version uses inventive, changeable text to illustrate what reading might be like for people who are dyslexic. The end-result is a moving story with real heft and power. I love the way Nichols explores the complexities of the issues he raises without resorting to easy answers.

The Backstitched Heart of Katharine Wright“, by Alison Wilgus in Interzone #279
I was utterly charmed and transported by this sci-fi/alt-history tale about ambition, family, love, obligations, and the strange business of time travel. Alison Wilgus takes us on a trip through several different iterations of the life and times of Katharine Wright, sister of aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright. In each iteration, things turn out just a bit differently for her and the brothers than you might have read in the history books. Each time, Katharine tries to adjust the timeline to avoid catastrophe. Wilgus did a lot of research on the Wrights while working on the Science Comics book Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared, and those efforts really come through on the page. Her obvious love for Katharine Wright, her deep knowledge of the role the Orvilles played in the history of human flight, and her grasp of the intricate historical details of the era add a wealth of depth and texture to a wrenching, beautifully told story.

The Rat King of Spanish Harlem“, by Nicky Drayden in Fiyah #9
People in Alicia’s life are changing: her boss, her lover Javier, her neighbors all around her city. Maybe it’s a new virus that is causing them to become eerily content and creepily rodent-like? Whatever it is, it’s spreadingAlicia remains largely unchanged even as the world around her evolves in a new direction, and the reader is left to wonder: is the change good or bad? Maybe a bit of both.  This is a wonderfully weird, sensual, and unsettling story in which the everyday world and everyday people are being slowly but inevitably transformed. Reading ii is like being submerged in some kind of psychotropic fever-dream that follows its own unbending internal logic. For more speculative fiction by Nicky Drayden, check out her novel Temper, which made our list of Our Favorite Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2018, or her debut novel The Prey of Gods.

Antumbra“, by Cory Skerry in Shimmer
You and your brother should be identical—technically you are—but no one has ever mistaken you for each other.” Jasper and Jesse are identical twins, but they’re also very different: while Jesse seems to have a magic touch with everything and everyone, Jasper is not so lucky. It doesn’t make things easier that the brothers are about to move again, uprooted by their parents for the umpteenth time. When an ominous presence begins to haunt them at school and elsewhere, a tangled skein of secrets and past misdeeds dramatically unravels. Skerry masterfully weaves together coming-of-age tribulations and dark fantasy, exploring issues of identity and belonging, family, and the complicated nature of the sibling bond. It’s but one of the exquisite tales in the very last issue (ever!) of Shimmer.

This is the Nightmare“, by Aysha U. Farah in Anathema
What if you had a bot in your home that was supposed to take care of you, but you gave it your own flawed, problematic personality? And what if that bot wasn’t just able to walk around your house, and your city, but was also able to access your mind? That is just part of the premise of this tense and chilling story, part near-future science fiction and part psychological horror. Farah expertly builds the tension until you feel an abyss lurking beneath the protagonist at every step. In the end, reality and memory, and the cyberworld and the dreamworld, become almost impossible to tease apart. Anathema is a newer zine, but they are consistently delivering excellent, often unsettling, speculative fiction with a literary bent.

Eater of Worlds“, by Jamie Wahls in Clarkesworld #148
A tiny missile (or maybe it’s a ship?) “as long as a rose’s thorn” has been traveling through space for a very long time. After splitting a moon in half, and then hitting a planet, she awakes (because the ship is a she). Her name is Kali, and at first, she isn’t sure of her identity or her mission, but knows she is old, and powerful, and made to deploy her children into the soil. It soon becomes clear Kali was built for an ancient war, and is a lethal threat to all human life. This might sound like a story you’ve read before, but what sets it apart is the carefully constructed beauty of the prose, and the fact that it’s told from the point of view of the alien technology itself, its various parts and programs trying to make sense of their purpose.

Snapped Dry, Scraped Clean“, by Setsu Uzumé in Metaphorosis Magazine
Once the corpse is ready to return to the desert, it falls to me to gather her memories.” Mother Hrisa comes to clean up after people die. She isn’t just concerned with the body, but with the dead person’s memories, which linger in the home. She uses special collecting vials to gather them and clean the place where they might otherwise fester. It is a difficult but necessary task, and if it’s not done right, the dead may haunt the living in very real ways. In one house, Mother Hrisa unexpectedly encounters more than one spirit, and this discovery eventually unravels a closely guarded family secret. Uzumé makes the usually ethereal business of memories and ghosts seem wondrously tangible in this gripping, evocative fantasy story.

The Pulse of Memory“, by Beth Dawkins in Apex Magazine #116
The ability to transfer memories and knowledge between individuals is common in science fiction. Here, Beth Dawkins puts her own unique spin on it. Her story involves a community living on a spaceship where transfer of knowledge between generations involves consuming specially designed fish. However, there’s a catch: the old must first be consumed alive by the fish. “Everyone dies at sixty-five. If a soul lives longer their memories risk corruption and are rendered unusable.” Calvin watches the fish eat his grandmother, and years later gladly consumes the fish that will become part of him. However, once he becomes Keeper of Memory, taking care of the fish, he gains a new and disturbing understanding of the system and the sacrifices it demands. This is a sharp, thought-provoking story, and I love the twists and turns of the plot: as Calvin’s beliefs are challenged, his understanding of his world changes.

Red“, by Malinda Lo in Foreshadow
I love retellings of Little Red Riding Hood, and Malinda Lo’s “Red” offers a striking and potent take on the old fairytale. This version is set in China during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and Lo starts with the tale’s well-known set-pieces—a girl, a grandmother, a wolf—then cleverly, skillfully twists the story in unexpected ways. The prose has a rhythm and clarity that is strongly reminiscent of old-school fairy tales, while the political context and the shocking twists that occur after the wolf has his fateful encounter with grandma, lend this story a different flavor and a fresh perspective.

What’s the best SFF story you read in January?

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