Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction: F&SF, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 12/7/17, 12/21/17
The highlight of F&SF‘s first 2018 issue is Dale Bailey‘s gleefully horrifying story “The Donner Party“. It opens with young Mrs. Breen delighted to be tasting human flesh for the first time – at a party given by the influential Lady Donner. Mrs. Breen is of an insignificant family (her grandfather made his money in trade!) and has married the much older Walter Breen, and the invitation signifies that perhaps her marriage has raised her social status, for it seems that the upper classes in this alternate world eat the meat of the lower classes (children preferred), and to be allowed to sample this meat with the peerage is a particular thrill. Mrs. Breen’s only disappointment is that so far she has only given her husband a daughter. But things get worse when she makes a misstep and is cruelly snubbed by Lady Donner and her circle. Her marriage suffers, and she is disturbed to hear of those who are opposed to the practice of anthropophagy. Is this a noble story of our heroine’s social awakening? Not quite – these are all quite awful people, and Bailey pushes the implications of their thinking to a gaspingly effective conclusion.
There is other strong work here, for example a sharp-edged story, “Neanderthals” from Gardner Dozois, pitting an enhanced time traveler against a recreated Neanderthal bodyguard, leading to a cynical resolution, and another of Nick Wolven‘s smart tales of near future social change, “Galatea“, in which almost everyone changes sex and bodies weekly at least. It deals with what happens when the narrator, in a 100% XX body, meets a man who can’t change for medical reasons. I take particular interest in new voices: Simon Fischer‘s short-short “A List of Forty-Nine Lies” is perhaps predictable, but nicely done – a list of lies told by a man resisting the New Dawn that has taken over his world; and “The Equationist” by J.D. Moyer, is a fine story of the life of Niall Skinner, who believes that he can plot everyone’s life according to their central equation – with mixed but ultimately not too awful results for his own life and those of a few people close to him.
One more issue from 2018, then a look at some of the later work from 2017. The January Lightspeed is full of fable-like pieces – even the SF, as Adam-Troy Castro‘s “The Streets of Babel” is presented. It’s clever work, about a man living in the wilderness, who is captured by a living city and made to endure the most dehumanizing aspects of city life for some months. Clever, as I said, with a distinct satirical point, though it didn’t quite sell me. The piece I really liked was Sarah Pinsker‘s “The Court Magician“. This tells of the career of a young boy selected to learn magic. He does so, over time, mastering sleight-of-hand, but always wanting more, until he is finally offered real magic, though it must be in service of the Regent of his land, and it comes at a cost – a terrible cost to him, and, he eventually realizes, possibly to others as well. It is, in a way, another variant on “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (a story Pinsker riffed on even more explicitly last year with “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going”).
In the December Clarkesworld, I liked “Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell. This is another of her “newbody” stories, about people uploaded into robotlike bodies to extend lifespans and for environmental reasons – and for other personal reasons as well. Mara wants a newbody, but can’t afford it and doesn’t qualify for one based on need. She decides to sneak into the newbody zone, posing as one of the protesters against them. This is one of those stories that elaborates on a central idea that can (and hopefully will) be explored at greater length – thoughtful and interesting, but best seen as part of a greater whole.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies closes the year with a strong and dark and effectively original story from Grace Seybold. “Trette’s Bones” opens, “When Trette was thirty, she gave her skull to the Ossuary”, a pretty arresting introduction. The strange city that Trette and the unnamed narrator grow up in has a Rule (among many) that upon becoming adult, one donates a bone to the Ossuary. It turns out the bone is replaced by a ghost bone, which may or may not act strangely. Trette donates an ear bone – and the question, ever since, is what does she then hear? And what drives her to later offer her entire skull? This is intriguing and unsettling work.
The previous Beneath Ceaseless Skies issue was fine as well, with an amusing story by Matthew Bennardo, “Low Bridge! Or the Dark Obstructions“, about a couple in mid-19th-century New York taking a canal packet to Niagara Falls on their honeymoon, and encountering and eventually discomfiting a pompous ghost-story writer and skeptic; and a fine continuation of Stephen Case‘s series about a wizard in a house of cloud, and the woman named Sylva who has been bound to that house in the form of wind. “The Wind’s Departure” offers a resolution of sorts to Sylva’s story – but surely the young wizard Diogenes will return.
“The Donner Party”, Dale Bailey (F&SF 1-2/18)
“The Court Magician”, Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)
“Crossing LaSalle”, Lettie Prell (Clarkesworld 12/17)
“Trette’s Bones”, Grace Seybold (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 12/21/17)
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 February 2018 issue of Locus.