The height of summer brought another impressive stack of short stories to the pages of magazines and screens of discerning sci-fi and fantasy readers. Here are the stories that I truly connected with in July.
“Waterbirds“, by G.V. Anderson in Lightspeed
A woman has disappeared from her holiday cottage by the shore. Perhaps she has been murdered? The local police constable has questions for her aged companion, Celia, an android falling into disrepair who is trying to make sense of her own memory logs in order to understand what has happened. As it turns out, those logs might hold more than one secret… Anderson is a masterful writer, and she unfolds this story gently and slowly, with an unflinching eye for the complex depths and nuances of human (and android) emotions and behavior. Beneath the surface, beneath the quiet voice of the story, there are currents of pain and love, and crimes and misdeeds that have remained hidden (and unpunished) for a long time. Anderson infuses this science fiction tale with such delicate beauty, it’s a wonder to read.
“The Passenger“, by Emily Lundgren in Shimmer
Kara stands outside the Pump N’ Stuff where she works, waiting for her friend Ludwig. (Or maybe he’s her boyfriend now? Kara isn’t sure.) It’s dark, the power’s out, and the night has turned eerie. Right from the get-go, Lundgren’s story pulls you deep inside Kara’s head, making you feel her hopes and insecurities, her brashness and her fears. This story’s voice comes so close it seems to whisper in your ear, letting you eavesdrop on Kara’s thoughts as she heads out on an uncanny ride through the night. “The Passenger” is a brilliantly crafted story about love, adolescence, and friendship, creeping ever deeper under your skin as Kara rides into the night with Ludwig. A powerful read.
“Bones In the Rock“, by R.K. Kalaw in Uncanny Magazine
Kalaw’s entry is part of Uncanny Magazine’s fabulous Dinosaur special issue, and it’s a sweeping love story that spans eons. Our protagonist searches the world (and across centuries) for fossils, tasting the bones, listening to the whispers of ancient memories. I don’t think I’ve ever read something like it before: a uniquely imagined and exquisitely written dino-romance, with memories of the tar pits and extinction, lit from within by the burning desire to bring back the one you love. There’s a section depicting the devastation that ended the era of the dinosaurs as seen through the eyes of someone who was there, and it is both shattering and magnificent.
“Speak Easy, Suicide Selkies“, by E. Catherine Tobler in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
A harrowing, uniquely crafted selkie tale, set in Tobler’s vividly drawn Circus universe (she has written many stories exploring the places and people of this world). This is the story of one Circus denizen, the Grand Duchess Maria Romanov (“neither a duchess nor a Romanov”) who opens her body for paying spectators, offering them a view they might not expect. Deeply moving and drawn with subtle nuances and beautiful prose, this is also a story about many other women who have entered the water, just like the Grand Duchess, slipping off (or on) new skins. I love the gorgeous imagery and strange magic of this tale. To me, it’s a story about longing to be free, about the perils and necessity of changing who you were, becoming someone else, and living in fear that your past will catch up with you. It also has one of the most gorgeous opening paragraphs I’ve read recently.
“-Good“, by Sunyi Dean in Flash Fiction Online
This compelling flash story takes place in a future when a form of rebirth is possible through cloning. Dean delves into themes of who wields the power, both in relationships and society, and how we can be forced, in ways that are both obvious and not so obvious, to disregard our own needs in favor of what other people want from us. It’s a quiet story that cuts deep using few words, and the ending is just perfectly crafted.
“The Need for Air“, by Lettie Prell at Tor.com
“The Need for Air” is a gripping, multi-layered tale set in a future where people can live their entire lives inside a virtual reality world created by corporations. Lake is a mother who is doggedly trying to establish a better “digital” life for herself and her son, trying to escape the run-down and seemingly more dangerous offline world. I have a weakness for stories that show us both the light and dark sides of motherhood, allowing mothers to be more complex and conflicted than evil witches or haloed angels. Lake certainly loves her child, but that motherly love also drives her to decisions that are not always easy or right.
“Vain Knife“, by Dare Segun Falowo in The Dark
Chilling and deeply unsettling, this story about a boy who tries to defeat the magic-wielding woman who is also his mother. It is a most excellent slice of horror, and reading it feels a bit like entering a nightmare. The tale follows a sinuous, disturbing logic of its own. Falowo’s prose is so sharp and dark it glistens. In the end, nothing works out the way you might think or hope, because here, evil is strong and difficult to defeat.
“To This You Cling, With Jagged Fingernails“, by Beth Cato in Fireside Fiction
“Your awareness of magic is dying, and now Grandma is dead, too. The two losses are not directly connected, and yet they are.” This is the opening line of Cato’s lovely, luminous story, and like every facet of this tale, these lines gleam with love and grief and longing. Cato perfectly captures the bittersweet moment when you feel the magic of childhood slip away, a moment haunted by sadness, and by the loneliness you can feel in a crowd when you think no one else feels the same, or as deeply, as you. Carefully and deliberately, it cuts into the memories and emotions (and the magic) beneath the surface, revealing a deeper truth of hope and rebirth, even when things seem grim and desperate.
“Hainted“, by Ashley Blooms in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July/August 2018
A beautifully written, heart-piercing story, “Hainted” is about a girl who heads deep into the coal mine where her father works to find his haint. She goes on this quest to save him, and bring back the kinder, gentler man she remembers from her early childhood. Her descent into the mine is described with visceral detail, as every step brings her deeper in, and brings a deeper understanding of what has happened to her father. “We all lost something down here,” says the miner who guides her through the dark. “Not just our bodies, neither.” I thought I knew what kind of tale this was, but toward, the end she twists the story in a subtle way that I found both powerful and satisfying.
“Gubbinal“, by Lavie Tidhar in Clarkesworld
Set on Saturn’s moon Titan, Tidhar’s science fiction story is a dizzying and hugely entertaining ride through a future world where human beings can modify their bodies to survive the harsh conditions of other planetary bodies, and where so-called boppers (once created by humans but now essentially an independent form of life) roam space, creating enigmatic items, seemingly unconcerned with humanity. While hunting for bopper artifacts, Sahar encounters the mysterious Ermine who is searching for a different sort of artifact in the frozen landscape of Titan. Tidhar’s world-building is outstanding, and at every turn you glimpse a deep and mesmerizing universe stretching far beyond the tale itself. Wonderfully rich science fiction that gleams with imagination.
What’s the best story you read in July?