Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Fireside, Giganotosaurus & Strange Horizons

Tor.com 6/20/18, 7/11/18
Clarkesworld 7/18
Fireside 7/18
Giganotosaurus 7/18
Strange Horizons 7/30/18

July also brings a special issue of Strange Hori­zons, with six stories guest edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, Erin Roberts & Rasha Abdulhadi. The issue focuses on the Southeastern USA and writing by black, indigenous, and POC authors. I only saw four before this issue went to press, but they all pack a punch. Christopher Caldwell‘s “Hide Me in the Shadow of Your Wings” follows a free black man as he grows up in antebellum Louisiana, first trying to suppress his magic and eventually blossoming with it. He grows wings and takes flight, finding love with an escaped slave whose magic leans more towards the water. This reminded me very much of the story “Bondye Bon” by Monique L. Desir in the Spring Issue of the newer magazine Fiyah – set in the same time/place but with an alternate history, it is well worth your time. “The People Who Sleep Beneath the Waves” by Malena Crawford features a woman on a slave ship – how she got there, what she did, and the lengths she will go to change her fate. Absolutely intense. Eden Royce brings us “Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone” with a fantastic conceit – that a catering company can serve up a seance with the favorite foods of the deceased. When Mixie is asked to help at her ex-husband’s seance she has reservations. It also becomes clear that there’s a mystery to be solved. “Dying Lessons” by Troy L. Wiggins features a young man being taught the magic of light (by his mother) and shadow (by his father). Set in a black suburban neighborhood, nothing can save all of them when race-based violence breaks out. But the magic empowers his actions at the end of the story, giving him a unique power amidst the tragedy.

Susan Palwick’s story for Tor.com in June, “Re­coveries“, uses the structure of a story of substance abuse and takes it in a very weird direction. Van­essa is a hard-core alcoholic, and we get the story through the second-person POV of Kat, her friend since high school. “You” watch Vanessa descend into binge drinking and blackouts, and stick with her through court-ordered AA meetings, while you hide your own issues through what seems like a serious eating disorder. At the end, at the hour when Vanessa might return to her hard drinking ways, Kat’s hidden nature is revealed. While there’s an air of “scared straight” and “you think you have it bad” that might not always work psychologically in the real world, the relationship between the two women and the second-person POV of someone dealing with a lot in a lifetime work very well.

In July Tor.com brings us “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly, a story of art triumphant. In this case the art is cooking. A woman is the food taster to an oppressive king; her husband is the chef and she is hostage for his good behavior. He has developed a technique to magically evoke specific moods and memories through his cooking, and we get the story as the woman eats one course at a time, experiencing each memory of her own life that brought her here, then seeing the effect the same course has on the evil king. It’s a great frame narrative that builds tension perfectly.

Giganotosaurus in July also shows art changing the world. “The Singing Wind and the Golden Hour” by Nicole Feldringer is set on a colonized Mars. Kala is upper class, and has a lower-class friend Abe who falls prey to an epidemic termed Valles Fever. While they search out the cause of the plague, Kala’s connections are no help. Eventually her photography pairs with Abe’s photomicrographs to bring the full story out to the world, through an art exhibition (also personally redemptive for Kala).

Clarkesworld #142 starts out with a fun story from Lavie Tidhar, “Gubbinal“, where a relic hunter on Saturn’s moon Titan is led to an injured “Ermine” (a person completely merged with a bio-suit such that they are one unit), who is looking for a mono­lith that will be instantly resonant to SF readers and movie-goers. This is one of those tales of being sideswiped by the fantastic/transcendent, and is chock full of SF references and Arthur C. Clarke shout-outs. “A Gaze of Faces” by Mike Buckley has a less familiar future, in which colonists on a mostly-dead world fight for control of their im­mersive historical archives. Irvine and the young Emmy find something there, hitherto unknown, which throws their known history into a tailspin. The scenario is interesting, but I’m not sure all the SF elements mesh harmoniously, and there are a lot of coincidences for what is a fairly short story.

The James Machine” by Kate Osias is a lovely story about an AI made in the wake of a man’s death from cancer. He and his wife are AI/Neural Network specialists, and she discovers his digital presence after he’s gone. While she and the AI seem doomed to fall into a dysfunctional relationship, she is able to rally herself and write a happier ending for both of them. It’s a nice twist compared to the number of stories where Franken­stein scenarios go wrong. Contrast with that “For What are Delusions if Not Dreams?” from young writer Osahon Ize-Iyamu, in which a drone/sol­dier/AI hunting down the source of a major power outage in Nigeria starts to have existential doubts. The story is extremely surreal, as it launches into the perceived worldview of a being in the midst of action and trauma. While it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s going on, the intensity of the story and the experience it describes are undeniable.

July’s Clarkesworld ends with the translation from Chinese of “To Fly Like a Fallen Angel” by Qi Yue. Starting with Li Yaya, supreme bio-hacker, being summoned to an unexpected meeting, it ends with the nature of her insular world being revealed. Blending cyberpunk with classic SF, she is brought up to a moment where she must choose what world she will belong to – while I think I know what she would choose, this story mixes a tense, tight ac­tion story with a perfectly SFnal world reveal and a huge sense of “and then what happens!?!” when it comes to the main character. This is one of the best worldbuilding reveal stories I’ve read in quite some time.

Fireside #57 brings us multiple uses of the second-person POV, starting with “A Post-Modern Oracle” by Courtney Floyd, in which “you” bring offerings to your Modernist poetry professor who is also a Sybil. A charming story in which you may not get the answers you are seeking. Next up, “To This You Cling, With Jagged Fingernails” by Beth Cato describes “your” experience at your grandmother’s funeral, deciding if growing up means you have to forgo any contact with the magical/liminal like your older brother, or if you can maintain some connection as your Grandma did. “The Story of a Young Woman” by Ose Utomi distances the audience from the protagonist through use of a very mythic structure, telling the story of an unnamed girl born dragon-marked, ris­ing to power and then falling, finding and losing her lover, and turning towards the lands of the gods of waters. This is a lot of story to stylistically sketch in a very few words, but the last sentence packs the best punch I read this month. “Love in Every Stitch” by Alexandra Rowland brings “you” again into the story, sketching out an implication of magic and escape through various forms of needle/fabric work. Finally, the longer short story “Rules for Communing with Spirits” by Christopher R. Alonso uses the structure of interspersing a series of rules that “you” should follow with the story of Xenia and her lover Caro in Florida. Xenia can hear spirits and Caro can see them – as Xenia pushes them towards going to ever more funerals, Caro distances herself. Breaking every rule given in the section headers, Xenia may finally learn to listen to the living as well as the dead.

Recommended Stories

“Hide Me in the Shadow of Your Wings”, Christopher Caldwell (Strange Horizons 7/30/18)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”, Tina Connolly (Tor.com 7/11/18)
“The James Machine”, Kate Osias (Clarkesworld 7/18)
“Recoveries”, Susan Palwick (Tor.com 6/20/18)
“To Fly Like a Fallen Angel”, Qi Yue (Clarkesworld 7/18)

Karen Burnham is an electromagnetics engineer by way of vocation, and a book reviewer/critic by way of avocation. She has worked on NASA projects including the Dream Chaser spacecraft and currently works in the automotive industry in Michigan. She has reviewed for venues such as Locus Magazine, NYRSF, Strange Horizons, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone. She has produced podcasts for Locusmag.com and SFSignal.com, especially SF Crossing the Gulf with Karen Lord. Her book on Greg Egan came out from University of Illinois Press in 2014, and she has twice been nominated in the Best Non Fiction category of the British SF Awards.

This review and more like it in the September 2018 issue of Locus.

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