Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: March 2019

Apex Magazine #118 cover by Aaron Jasinski

In March, we read stories of octopuses (and other tentacled beings), dragons (and aliens, and cursed mummies), barter queens in the post-apocalypse, a perverted justice system, and Jack the Ripper’s London. Stories about haunting forests, and men haunted by their own guilt. Here are some of our favorites from another great month for short speculative fiction.

O Have You Seen the Devle with his Mikerscope and Scalpul?“, by Jonathan L. Howard in Apex
In this powerful and strikingly original Jack the Ripper story (that isn’t really about the Ripper), the narrator walks the filthy streets of Victorian London like a time-traveler, visiting crime scenes and crossing paths with the victims, the policemen, the witnesses. He knows every detail about the place, and the horrors that unfolded there, but is still unable to change anything, save anyone, or even identify the killer. The narrator’s profound unease over his role as an impotent voyeur—and his distaste for his obsession with the killer—bleeds through in every paragraph. That sense of self-loathing deepens and sharpens the story, as does Howard’s compassion for the women who lost their lives over perverse motives of their killer, and the society that put them in harms way in the first place. The result is a visceral yet lyrical tale, and the soaring ending gave me chills.

The Blanched Bones, the Tyrant Wind“, by Karen Osborne in Fireside
The story starts with a familiar fairy-tale scene: a girl is being sacrificed to appease a dragon. She’s not the first, and she won’t be the last, because the city of Talosoth requires this sacrifice in order for its citizens, and its king, to live safely. She walks up the mountain, barefoot, in a thin cotton gown—that’s the way the dragon prefers it, people say. Her one-time neighbors cheer while she walks, knowing her death will buy them salvation. And then… well, then, Osborne doesn’t just flip the script, she flips the entire table over, and reveals she’s doing something quite different with her tale. It’s a masterfully told one, and packs the punch of an epic into a flash-fiction format.

When Home, No Need to Cry“, by Erin K. Wagner in Clarkesworld
In the maybe-not-so-distant future, two astronauts, Karen and Terry, share a strange experience on a mission: they both awake from the same nightmare, and afterward, they’re both haunted by the experience: both the dream itself, and their odd twinning. Did something really happen to them on that shuttle, or did they imagine it? They’re not sure. Or maybe they are sure, but they can’t put their certainty into words. Now, Karen is dying of cancer, and her only wish is to return to space one final time. It’s all she can think of, but no one will let her go up there again. Wagner’s quietly devastating story needles its way under your skin, the kind of science fiction that whispers rather than roars.

Barter Queen“, by Sarah Pauling in Cast of Wonders
Soledad and her brother Gabe have come to Marytown bearing gifts of makeup for Queen Mary, and to beg her permission to stay. Marytown is a relatively safe haven in a dangerous post-apocalyptic world, and Queen Mary, the Barter Queen, rules it from a gold-painted throne on a theatre stage. In a world falling apart, only she understands the power of perception—of looking the part—especially when you’re a young woman proclaiming yourself a regent. The reality of Marytown turns out to be not as idyllic as Soledad and Gabe might have hoped, but even a tale that ends in defeat, can also be threaded with hope. I love this gripping and unusual take on the the post-apocalypse because instead of reveling in a broken world, it shows humans trying to rebuild—to reclaim some kind of peace, even after everything they’ve ever known has crumbled.

Example“, by Adam Troy-Castro in Nightmare
Adam Troy-Castro’s latest story takes place in a near-future America where capital punishment has been reimagined. Not abolished, but given a different purpose than simply punishing the guilty. The story follows death-row inmate Hector Ortiz during what are to be his final hours, as he finds out first-hand what the new policy means for him and how much the concept of justice has been twisted since he was first incarcerated. “Example” is a compelling and profoundly unsettling story that hit me right in the solar plexus, and not only because this future seems only a hair’s breadth away. Troy-Castro writes with insight and passion, and his portrayal of Hector Ortiz is both complex and nuanced. As quiet and character-driven as the story is, it simmers with anger at the ways the rule of law and justice can be perverted in the name of order. “He said, “Did this really happen to the world when I wasn’t looking?” Her gaze was bereft but unapologetic. “While all of us weren’t looking.”

The Tentacle and You“, by John Wiswell in Nature Futures
Congratulations on your new tentacle! You’re probably one of the first people in your entire civilization to get this gift, and we know how overwhelming that can feel.” Written as a day-by-day list of tips for how to care for yourself and your new appendage, this one is a darkly humorous tale of self-improvement, transformation, and invasion (of our world and our bodies) told in the voice of an exuberant salesman. The peerless blend of whimsy and body horror make it a small masterpiece of science fiction.

After Life“, by Shari Paul in The Dark
It’s been a while since I read a horror story featuring a mummy, but this one, by Shari Paul, is a very satisfying iteration on the form. “After Life” is set in the modern day, yet full of magic and ancient Egyptian curses, and it has an original twist: it’s told from the point of view of the mummy himself. He doesn’t remember his real name anymore, but he calls himself Set, and he knows he’s been brought back to life many times already, usually to serve as a political assassin. This time, though, he’s been revived by a man who seeks corporate power rather than to command a nation. Set is not very impressed, and begins looking for a way to break his new master’s hold over him. Telling the story from Set’s point of view lends new depth to the usual mummy tale, turning a shambling monster into a relatable protagonist.

In A Dry Season“, by David Martin in Black Static #68
I love horror stories that start out deceptively normal and ratchet up the tension bit by bit until the accumulated dread shakes your bones. This is one of them: a man who recently held a position of great political power has retired to a small town to write a book that will explain to the world why he did what he did, and why his actions were justified. Outwardly, he seems confident and self-assured. Beneath the veneer, there is something eating away at him. We gradually come to understand that he has done something horrible—that people have died, that he is responsible, and that the guilt and pain are hollowing him out. This is a story of guilt and power and the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on each other and the world and then rationalize away. Martin skillfully and deliberately twists the story until all illusion and self-deception falls away and harrowing reality stands bared.

Octonet, by Keyan Bowes in Escape Pod
Suveera has just been hired for an IT project, working with a group of researchers in the Pacific North West. The researchers study GPOs—giant pacific octopuses—trying to find out more about how intelligent these cephalopods are, and what they might use that intelligence for. After hearing that a bored octopus can get into all sorts of trouble, Suveera jokingly suggests the creatures might like to use cellphones. One thing leads to another, and when the researchers put adapted phones into the tentacles of the cephalopods, strange and wonderful things begin to happen (selfies aren’t just for humans, it turns out). This is a delightful story, full of thought-provoking ideas about non-human intelligence, not to mention fascinating facts about octopuses. It is partly inspired by the non-fiction book Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, by Dr. Jennifer A. Mather; by its end, you will definitely be rooting for the tentacled ones.

The Mortmain“, by Sebastian Strange in Reckoning
In his house at the edge of the Mortmain Forest, retired surgeon Henryk Król is washing the dishes when a strange boy appears and asks for his help. Something inside him is hurting him, the boy says, and it needs to be taken out. Henryk declines to help, but the boy returns again and again, looking sicker every time. Vivid and unsettling dreams also begin to haunt Henryk’s sleep, and he comes to believe that somehow, the boy’s ailment is linked to the woods around him, and specifically to an area of the Mortmain Forest being cleared for development. This is an evocative story about the link between humans and nature, and about how our disregard for the natural world might come back to haunt us. Literally, in this case.

What’s the best story you read last month?

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