In October, I read tales of resistance and hope, horror and devastation, rogue AI, snakes you can bargain with, time travel, and gods meeting in a rose garden. It was a great month for speculative short fiction.
“With Lips Sewn Shut“, by Kristi DeMeester in Apex Magazine
“This was the way it had always been done. Girls’ mouths sewn closed and born without names so that we might focus on our work.” In DeMeester’s dark fantasy tale, we find ourselves in a place where girls and women cannot speak or move about freely. We follow a girl born into this world, and find that even in a place of fear and despair burns a small, fierce light of resistance. The light in the darkness is the relationship between the girl and her mother, a woman doing her utmost to save her child. DeMeester’s prose is rich and evocative, and her story can be read as fantasy, horror, parable, or fairy tale. It is, in the end, not just about horror and oppression, but about the possibility of finding another way of life—if you can endure the trials you encounter along the way.
“Subtle Ways Each Time“, by Y.M. Pang in Escape Pod
This is a tender and wonderfully twisted take on the science fiction idea of righting a wrong via time travel. A man tries desperately to fix a failed relationship by going back and adjusting his own behavior. Of course, it turns out it’s not so easy to do, but he keeps trying. As he loops back and forth in time, he starts to notice the world is changing around him with the varied choices he and his ex-girlfriend make, even as he begins to gain a deeper understanding of her (and himself). This is a subtle and engaging tale about human nature, love, obsession, and how our choices affect the world around. This audio story features excellent narration by Peter Behravesh.
“Asphalt, River, Mother, Child“, by Isabel Yap in Strange Horizons
In this haunting story, Yap weaves together the reality of everyday violence in the Philippines with a tale set in the afterlife. A dead girl named Adriana meets a woman called Mebuyen, who takes care of her and tries to help her find her way after death. Using several different points of view, Yap expertly layers reality and fantasy, creating a moving story that is both speculative and a unflinching look at circumstances that exist in our world at present; it vividly reveals how lives and the fabric of society can be torn apart by violence and fear. It’s a wrenching read, but not without a glimmer of hope.
“The Miracle Lambs of Minane“, by Finbarr O’Reilly in Clarkesworld
A compelling tale about a near-future in which humanity is recovering from a disaster that has drastically reduced the population, made the oceans too dangerous to fish or traverse, and devastated global trade and technology. It’s set in a community in Ireland that is haunted by famine and population loss. “The Country Needs People” is its official slogan, and not surprisingly, this means tighter controls placed on a woman’s right to choose when and if she has children. When the fiercely independent Moll—an enterprising farmer with a penchant for science—quietly assists people in need, the repercussions are slow in coming, but come they do. The system of oppression O’Reilly imagines is not as extreme as in some post-apocalyptic stories, but the fact that it is grounded in subtle yet stringent social control reinforced by laws and religion makes it utterly convincing. Vividly written, and with mouth-watering descriptions of food, this is a tale worth pondering, and savoring.
“The Shrike“, by Cameron Suey in PseudoPod
I love it when a writer turns everyday situations or objects into something absolutely terrifying. Suey does just that in “The Shrike,” in which a piece of sharp metal sticking out of the ground becomes a woman’s nemesis. The story intertwines two horrors: one is the all too real horror of a mother who has lost her child to what seems to be a freak accident, and is being consumed by grief and guilt. The other is the shrike itself, the mundane yet ominous object that caused her daughter’s death. When the mother decides to set the world right by removing the instrument of her torment, Suey deepens the horror with wrenching precision, until the full horror of what claimed a young life is revealed. The narration by Sandra M. Odell is once again excellent.
“Ten Deals With the Indigo Snake“, by Mel Kassel in Lightspeed
The protagonist of this story knows one shouldn’t make deals with snakes, no matter how tempting doing so may be. But just knowing that a snake could make any wish come true, could give you anything you want—love, revenge, success… anything—well, it’s hard to resist forever. Of course, the problem is what the snake will ask in return. And once you pay the price, and let the snake into your life (maybe even into your bed), will you be able to live without it? This is a story that weaves together themes of addiction, love, religion, myth, magic, and more, and in its dark humor and lovely strangeness, it has an emotional weight that lingers.
“Magic Potion Behind the Mountains“, by Jaymee Goh in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Fanyu, a magistrate from the royal court, is sent to a remote province. In hopes of furthering his career, he goes off in search of a strength-giving potion from a mysterious mountain village. There, an old woman called Grandmother Seung agrees to teach him how to make the elixir, which turns out to be a much more arduous and transformative process than Fanyu imagined. With a gentle sense of humor, this story plumbs unexpected depths as it explores ideas of power and the importance of etiquette and careful language. It reminds me of late-era Ursula K. Le Guin, tales in which old women and everyday life possess a kind of subversive magic that the men who rule the world find hard to grasp.
“AI and the Trolley Problem“, Pat Cadigan at Tor.com
This is a thought-provoking science fiction story about an AI that goes rogue (much to the horror of its creators), and decides to solve the old trolley problem—are the lives of passengers on a train worth more than the lives of those stuck on the tracks?—in rather drastic fashion. Cadigan tells the story in a straightforward manner, but there’s a whole lot going on beneath the surface. There are hints of a global society that is under duress, and you get the feeling that war and disaster and constant surveillance have eaten away at the edges of peace and freedom. Cadigan probes the kinds of problems that arise when humans create new “minds” with capabilities and thoughts they can’t control or fully understand. The story is insightful, clever, and funny, with a cast of terrific characters (AI included); the dialogue snaps and crackles with life.
“One and Two“, by Emma Osborne in Kaleidotrope
Two gods meet at dusk in a rose garden. One of them is of the earth, and one of them is of the sea, and they have known each other for a very long time. They are part of our world, a world that seems to be slowly but surely destroying itself. Now, one of them has suffered a devastating blow, one he might not be able to weather. Osborne’s story is beautifully crafted and profoundly moving. It’s about loss and regret, but also endurance, and belief, and friendship, and looking for things that give you hope and pleasure even when the world around you seems doomed. Osborne enriches it with earthy, everyday detail, like the joy of sharing good stories and good food. It might make you tearful and hungry at the same time.
“Marrow“, by E.C. Tobler in Black Static #65
This is a horror story about Eatr, a rather aptly named creature that roams a ravaged landscape, killing and devouring everyone it encounters. It is also an evocative post-apocalyptic fairy tale about a girl named Alix who develops a fraught but powerful bond with Eatr. Both Alix and Eatr are haunted by memories of the past—of how the world used to be, and how it has been forever changed. Guided by Alix, and driven by Eatr’s all-consuming hunger, the pair sets out on a harrowing trip across the devastated landscape, and even though you suspect there is no salvation out there to be found, you can’t help but hope for it. Tobler’s prose is sparse and sharp; every sentence cuts you like a knife. This nightmarish tale is both visceral and exquisite.
Did you read any standout stories in October?