Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction

Asimov’s 9-10/17
Clarkesworld 10/17
Lightspeed 11/17
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 9/28/17
Tor.com 10/17
Prime Meridian, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Indiegogo/Innsmouth Free Press) December 2017.
Singing My Sister Down, Margo Lanagan (Al­len and Unwin) May 2017.

Is the novelette the ideal form for SF? I sup­pose not necessarily, but it does work pretty well, as evidenced by the September-Octo­ber Asimov’s. R. Garcia y Robertson‘s “Grand Theft Spacecraft” is the sort of breathless fun we anticipate from him, a sequel of sorts to his previous Asimov’s story, “The Girl Who Stole Herself”. This one is told by Cole, a Jute Knight-Deacon on a space habitat in Jupiter orbit, loyal to the murdered Princess Rylla. He is suddenly thrust into a desperate plot hatched by his bril­liant eight-year-old cousin Jazmynne, in which they must outwit the supercomputer Mimir, the Space Navy, and Space Vikings, and negotiate with Mongols and Choctaws (who have sworn vengeance on Cole) in order partly to save a bunch of kids from slavery, along with their mothers, who have been coerced into prostitu­tion, but specially to advance the secret plans left by Rylla. Michael Swanwick‘s “Universe Box” (which was actually published last year, in an edition of 13!) is also fairly breathless fun, in which a thief steals a box with everything any­one could desire in it, and under pressure, has a rather colorless young man named Howard hide it, as the Adversary pursues. Howard has been planning to ask his girlfriend Mimi to marry him, while Mimi has been planning to break up with boring Howard, but the box, and the adven­tures the thief leads them into, change both their lives. It’s stuffed with wit, with imagination, and with audacity.

Those are good, but even better are two stories with some similar themes that open and close the issue. Sarah Pinsker‘s “Wind Will Rove” is a story about the folk process, and memory, and the occasional importance of forgetting. Rosie is a middle-aged teacher on a generation starship, and a pretty good fiddle player. A ma­licious virus wiped most of the ship’s memory not too long into the journey, and Rosie and her fellows work on restoring what’s been lost by re­membering everything they can, including folk tunes. Some of her students resent being taught history, though – another form of remembering. Why should they re-create Earth on the ship, or even the new planet (that they will never see)? Even Rosie’s daughter has doubts. But purpose­ful forgetting – or malicious erasing – hardly seems right either. These questions are consid­ered in the light of Rosie’s thinking about a par­ticular folk tune, “Windy Grove”, a favorite of her grandmother’s, and how it changed over time – and might still change. Thoughtful and quite moving. Suzanne Palmer‘s “Books of the Ris­en Sea” is set in a coastal town, flooded due to climate change. Caer is a trans man who has fled his abusive father and uncomprehending sister and her husband to live in the town’s library. His main effort is saving what he can of the library’s waterlogged books. One day he rescues a robot (who also likes to read) from the ocean. That same day pirates attack, and Caer and the non-violent robot are left to defend Caer’s pregnant sister, and to save his brother-in-law from the raiders. The story is exciting, and concerned of course with Caer’s identity, and with the rule of law in a decaying future, but also with saving our cultural heritage in such a future. The same question arises – saving old stories is good, but should we forget making new stories?

Intro to Prom” by Genevieve Valentine is the standout in the October Clarkesworld. Jack and Celandine and Mara and Robbie are four young people who were abandoned in a domed (and now submerged) habitat when it was evacu­ated. (Why the evacuation, and what happened elsewhere, are fraught questions that lurk pow­erfully in the story’s background.) They have plenty of food, and nothing to do but wait for the dome’s inevitable collapse. One thing they do is re-enact prom, over and over again, in different combinations, with different mini-plots – who goes with who, who leaves with who, etc. The story’s sections cycle points of view between the characters, and we learn who they are, and why they are there, and a bit of what happened before.

In Lightspeed‘s November issue my favorite sto­ry comes from Charlie Jane Anders. It’s another Kango and Sharon Adventure (like her story in Cosmic Powers). I should perhaps recycle the phrase I used above: “breathless fun,” which does apply. In “Cake Baby“, the duo, along with new partner Jara and their ship’s computer Noreen, are as usual one step ahead of their creditors and need a big score. Their new job, then, is to steal the DNA of some children of the Society of Worthy Minds, who have devel­oped a useful mutation that gives them a greater ability to live in deep space. Their plan involves Sharon debating the leader of the Society while Kango steals the DNA. Of course, it goes crazily wrong…. It’s full of chaotic hijinks, and dead­pan humor, and twists, and science that doesn’t make any sense but who cares?

The September 28 Double Issue represents the ninth anniversary of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Nine years? How time flies! Best here is Kam­eron Hurley‘s “The Fisherman and the Pig” (which first appeared on her Patreon in Febru­ary), about Nev, a body mercenary who is happy with his latest body, a now-ancient fisherman. He and his pig are interrupted one day by a couple of rather suspicious-looking characters who want to sell their fish in his stall. He agrees, only to learn that the fish are poisoned. So Nev, continuing to switch bodies, in company with a naïve teenager, tracks down the necromancer re­sponsible. There is a certain bloody-mindedness to the story and its resolution, appropriate in par­ticular for a character as long-lived as Nev. Also very fine is “The Fall of the Mundaneum” by Rebecca Campbell. Oskar has volunteered to be the last staffer of the title museum, a home for all the world’s knowledge, as the Germans advance in August 1914. He gets one last do­nation – a valise that seems to have no bottom – and that seems to have items from the future, including relics of the coming war. The effect is a touching and horrifying meditation on the place of knowledge in the face of war, and on the fact that includes information about the horrors of war, especially the 20th century’s wars.

Tor.com‘s two October originals are both pretty strong stories. “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter” by Sam J. Miller is told in two sections by Otto, a gay man in near future New York, who lives with his boyfriend Trevor, who rescued him from drug addiction and who keeps him (so to speak) straight. At a party, Otto falls in lust with a friend’s brother, Aarav, as the guests discuss what they are doing with pro­grammable matter. The second part is set not too long later, in a much-changed world – it seems that programmable matter has run amok and destroyed much of the world. Trevor is dead, and Otto is in a refugee camp. There he encounters Aarav again, now blinded, and he contemplates how to deal with him – after their encounter, which it turns out went horribly wrong for Otto, but does that matter now? The story is absolutely convincing in portraying Otto, and his relationship with Trevor and his abor­tive connection with Aarav – but the SF side, the programmable matter and the disaster it causes, seems thin and unconvincing. “Crispin’s Model” by Max Gladstone is a Lovecraftian story, as the title hints. That’s not my cup of tea in general, but Gladstone handles it well, as Deliah, an aspiring playwright making ends meet by nude modeling, poses for a spooky but famous artist who tries to see the dark essence of his models – and in so do­ing threatens to create a gateway for the monsters that, perhaps, represent our true evil essence. But perhaps the point is that we can resist our evil na­ture?

Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s new novella, Prime Me­ridian, is available to backers on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. I’d say it’s worth checking out there. It’s near-future SF, about Amelia, a Mexican wom­an who dreams of traveling to Mars, though her current life is less exciting, where she is scratch­ing out a living serving as a sort of rent-a-friend to lonely people. Her problem is that she’s not friendly by nature, and her only client seems to be Lucia, an aging actress who likes to reminisce about her time making films, crucially including a cheesy movie set on Mars. Then she gets a new commission – but this turns out to be from her rich ex-boyfriend, who once seemed to share her dreams of Mars, but now spends his father’s money while waffling about his commitment to the fiancée his father has chosen. The near-future scenes effectively portray a just-around-the-corner decaying future, and they are effectively interspersed with scenes riffing on an improved version of Lucia’s Mars movie. The resolution truly takes flight, and the ending is quite powerful. Really, this is one of the best novellas I’ve seen in 2017.

Finally I must belatedly mention a new collec­tion of stories (many previously collected) from Margo Lanagan, Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories. It’s a first-rate book, and includes three new stories. My favorite of these is “Not All Ogre“, about Torro, who is half-ogre, and who comes to town with two friends. We get hints of the menace from ogres the townspeople sense, and the changes undergone since the old prince was deposed – and of Torro resisting his ogreish urges. Then the story turns: it is a Sleeping Beauty retelling of a rather ghoulishly horrific, and effec­tive, sort.

Recommended Stories

“Cake Baby”, Charlie Jane Anders (Lightspeed 11/17)
“The Fall of the Mundaneum”, Rebecca Campbell (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 9/28/17)
“Crispin’s Model”, Max Gladstone (Tor.com 10/17)
“The Fisherman and the Pig”, Kameron Hurley (Patreon 2/17; Beneath Ceaseless Skies 9/28/17)
“Not All Ogre”, Margo Lanagan (Singing My Sister Down)
Prime Meridian, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Indiegogo: Innsmouth Free Press)
“Books of the Risen Sea”, Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“Wind Will Rove”, Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“Intro to Prom”, Genevieve Valentine (Clarkesworld 10/17)


Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.


This review and more like it in the December 2017 issue of Locus.

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One thought on “Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction

  • January 23, 2018 at 12:19 pm
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    More and more, I find myself thinking the novelette is the ideal form for SFF. It just seems to have enough space for the author to make the setting convincing and still have room for characters and plot.

    Reply

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