This month, we read stories of apocalyptic food and an elusive paradise, of a haunted printing press, of dangerous gods and children with dangerous appetites, of mind- and body-altering substances, of magic flutes and powers so frightening they lead to a life of loneliness and isolation. Read on…
“This Way to Paradise“, by Rati Mehrotra in Lightspeed
Somewhere in the mountains of northern India, children named Tara and Tamar are traveling north with their Auntie Anju, and into the path of an ongoing war. The home they’ve left behind is broken. There is strife between India, Pakistan, and China, but something else has plunged the world into even deeper chaos: eight years ago, 40 million people, including Tara and Tamar’s parents, disappeared without a trace. No one knows how it happened or where the people went, and though at the time it pulled the region back from the brink of nuclear annihilation, the countries are still ravaged by fighting. With almost fanatical fervor, Auntie now tells the children they’re headed to “Paradise,” but what kind of paradise can there be, so close to the frontlines of the war? Mehrotra’s story packs a powerful emotional punch; as the truth of Paradise is revealed, it tightens its grip on readers, leading for a thrilling conclusion. One of the best science fiction stories I’ve read this year.
“Apocalypse Considered Through a Helix of Semiprecious Foods and Recipes“, by Tobias S. Buckell in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction May/June 2019
What will we eat after the Apocalypse? What lost dishes and ingredients will we yearn for? Buckell’s story is set in a future where our world has been fundamentally altered by climate change, conflict, and our own mismanagement of natural resources. Dish by dish—from pancakes to Reuben sandwiches, from beef stew to walking tacos, and beyond—Buckell tells us how people try to survive in this challenging future. It’s a story that is grim but also uplifting—while there is tragedy and death here, there is also resistance and resilience, and a taste (fleeting though it may be) of happiness and comfort.
“Bedtime Snacks for Baby“, by Catherine George in Flash Fiction Online
“Once more before bedtime, my sweet. Snuggle up here in the rocking [item used for sitting], and I’ll tell you how it happened.” So begins this both whimsical and ingenious short story about language and words, and a very special baby that is changing the world, one snack at a time. I love how this tale seems innocuously sweet and funny at first, and then, once you realize what is truly happening, it twists to become both chilling and brilliant.
“Dune Song“, by Suyi Davies Okungbawa in Apex
This story takes place in a tightly controlled community in the desert. The arid landscape is haunted by an ominous phenomenon that makes itself known by wind and noise. “Do not go out to the dunes”, the Chief says at one point. “The gods will whistle you to death.” The community’s strict rules and dire warnings are not enough to dissuade Nata. Her mother disappeared in the desert, and before she left, she told Nata there are thriving civilizations beyond the sand-covered world that surrounds their home, and that “the whirlwind of time would take her there.” Nata is determined to look for her mother, and those other civilizations, but to leave is to risk severe punishment and death. A uniquely imagined, compelling story about daring to go your own way, even when people tell you you’re wrong.
“Moses“, by L.D. Lewis in Anathema
When she’s 12, Moses is bullied by a boy at school, and one day, he harasses her when she’s heading home with her younger sister Jordan. Moses lashes out, and suddenly, inexplicably, the boy is gone. No one ever sees him again, and Moses and Jordan are not quite sure what happened. Later, Moses serves in the military, fighting a war in a foreign country. There, she is confronted with the devastating reality of what she is capable of, and when she returns home, nothing is the same. This is a riveting, gritty story that follows Moses as she struggles to come to grips with her abilities and the memories that haunt her as she drifts through a life with Jordan as her only safe haven.
“Scolex“, by Matt Thompson in Interzone #281
In this suspenseful sci-fi story, various illegal substances (drugs, genetic enhancements, etc.) are unconventionally smuggled—not hidden in bags or packages, but injected into a person’s bloodstream. Tyner is a drug addict and a mule, and has been injected with a new concoction called “Scolex” meant for an anonymous buyer in the former North Korea. As Tyner travels there, the substance coursing through his veins is changing him, altering his mind and body in ways he does not understand. Is Scolex a drug, or is it something utterly, frighteningly, different? The closer Tyner gets to his destination, the more his sense of reality seems to fracture, as the ghosts of his past return to haunt him. A taut, riveting story with shades of Johnny Mnemonic and Neuromancer, with a trippy, drug-addled edge.
“The Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter in The Dark
A woman called LP watches as a menacing, feral child enters her backyard. She watches as the child approaches the family cat, lounging in the garden. The cat her husband loves. The cat she does not particularly care for. The gut-wrenching scene is the start of a deeply unsettling horror story as tense and taut as a piano wire about to snap. Through LP’s eyes, Slatter gives us an unflinching look at the darkness lurking at the edges of our seemingly orderly society, with its backyards and pets and babies, and also gives us a glimpse of the darkness that lurks inside us too, beneath the things we know we should feel and do. For more dark horrors by Angela Slatter, check out her novelette Finnegan’s Field.
“The Bone Flute Quartet“, By K.J. Kabza in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Bretchen wants to become a witch, but her mother is dead set against it, saying she wants Bretchen to “enter a respectable profession.” However, the young girl does not give up so easily. Aided by her Ommama, and with Ommama’s treasured bone flute hidden in her pack, she sets out to make her own way in the world. Soon, she finds herself on a perilous quest that requires her to gather four magical flutes made from the bones of a long-dead, frightfully powerful witch. This darkly delightful story by K.J. Kabza has the satisfying feel of an old-school fairy tale. And as in any fairy tale worth its salt, Bretchen must use all her skills and her wits to succeed.
“Malotibala Printing Press“, by Mimi Mondal in Nightmare
As ghost stories go, this tale by Mimi Mondal is both inventive and hugely enjoyable. It’s set in India, and involves a haunted printing press, a tiger, a series of raunchy romance novels, and a murder most foul. Mondal tells this story in beautifully crafted prose that has an almost playful flow and rhythm, and in the telling, she fits smaller tales within it, giving the horror of what takes place a wistful, even sorrowful lilt. The ghosts here, like so many do, hunger for justice, but also long for someone to listen—to hear and believe their story. If this tale leaves you wanting more of Mondal’s writing, check out her wonderfully original take on the genie in the lamp in His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light.
“The Intercessor“, by Deborah L. Davitt in The Fantasist
This novella mixes fantasy and alternate history, and takes place in a reimagined Constantinople in the year 1658. It begins when two men enter the city. One is Hugh D’Orsey, an Intercessor, an official of the christian church who oversees and polices the use of magic. His friend and fellow traveller is Badr ibn Abi Salim al-Din, a representative of the sultan of Egypt. They have come to the city as bodyguards during the Conclave of the Holy Ecumenical Council, but when a suspicious fire starts in a synagogue, they find themselves pulled into a nefarious plot that goes deeper than either of them expected. Davitt weaves together religion, magic, monsters, spirits, gods and demons, and even a heart-pounding love story, into an complex and intricate tale that kept me hooked from the first page to the last.
What’s the best SFF short you read last month?