Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Omenana, BCS, and more

Clarkesworld 9/18
Lightspeed 11/18
Omenana #12 8/18
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 11/8/18, 11/22/18
Fireside 10/18
Apex 9/18, 10/18
Terraform 9/14/18, 9/23/18
e-flux 9/18
Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores 9/18

Clarkesworld brings us five original stories for the month of September, of which the strongest is “When We Were Starless” by newcomer Simone Heller. Starting out with an alien tribe eking out a subsistence living in a blasted wasteland, we learn about the scout Mink and her place in her society, especially her role in putting to rest the “ghosts” they find. When she finds a museum and its curator, we learn the history of how her world came to be. With her newfound knowledge comes strife and conflict, but also a determination to look to the future, not the past. This SF short story encompasses an epic scope that eschews despair and mundanity for hope and dreams. Looking at a hinted-at apocalypse in a much nearer future, “The Miracle Lambs of Minane” by Finbarr O’Reilly shows us an Ireland denuded of people and struggling to feed those who are left. The narrator joins the farm of a research scientist, Moll, who is helping to feed both people and livestock, and also developing homegrown medicines for people who need them. O’Reilly doesn’t sidestep politics, diving right into what the abortion debate might look like in such a future. I especially liked the denouement of the story where we learn about the local legends and songs spawned by the events of the story.

Also of note are “The Facecrafter” by Anna Wu (translated by Emily Jin) and “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer. Wu’s story imagines another post-apocalyptic scenario (a bit of a leitmotif recently in Clarkesworld) where communities have moved underground to survive a nuclear winter, making do as best they can and escaping into VR whenever possible. In this world the artists who make the best avatars, the “facecrafters” of the title, command the highest pay, unlike art custodian Ling Xi or her plant geneticist brother Ling Bai. The story starts when all of Ling Xi’s art mysteriously disappears, and continues when she has mysterious encounters in VR. Hun Dun, the premiere facecrafter, may have literally godlike powers and a hidden plan for humanity. This story is a great blend of science, arts, science fiction, and mythology. Palmer’s story focuses on Joe, a soldier in a near-future army who is really bad at his job. The smart prosthetics that make up the titular 33% of him network among themselves and determine that he’s a better cook than soldier and that his mother’s influence on him is toxic. Their dialog is funny as they try to chart a course for Joe to survive the war, despite his efforts to die a hero. Ultimately there is heroism as well in those who try to make sure that enlisted folks get better meals than government-issue-standard slop.

Lightspeed for November is a strong issue, starting off with “Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy” by Theodore McCombs. Jer­emy is an educational app that takes an incredibly abusive turn for some children. The way the app interacts with the main character, David, is chill­ingly drawn out, and awfully plausible in terms of its abuse of its Terms of Service to manipulate him through his social media and other phone informa­tion. The story also features a particularly unusual point of view, told by a collective “we” made up of the parents of the students who go to David’s private middle school. Their perspective on what happened, how they missed the signs, and what they did about it rings especially true.

Theodora Goss‘s story “Queen Lily” is an amazing work blending fantasy and biography. Before reading it I did not know that Charles Dodg­son/Lewis Carroll was good friends with another fantasist, George MacDonald, or that MacDonald’s eldest daughter Lilia was the same age as Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Carroll’s classic. Goss imagines Lily’s fevered thoughts as she suffers from tuberculosis, slipping in and out of reality and dreaming of Through the Looking Glass‘s world. The real Alice, now in her late 30s, comes to visit her and talks about her very complicated feelings about Dodgson and about Alice in Wonderland. While Lily cannot respond, the discussion informs her dreaming. Goss’s story is an amazing medita­tion on a touchstone work of fantasy. Finally, Mat­thew Hughes returns to his far-future Archonate universe and the recurring character of detective Henghis Hapthorn in “Hapthorn’s Last Case“. As the world of the story is on the cusp of changing from a universe following science fictional rules to one based on fantasy/magic, Hapthorn accepts an invitation to a select dinner by an award-winning chef. Helping the chef solve one mystery embroils Hapthorn in another, this one with political import. The Archonate universe is always a fun place to spend time, and this story does not disappoint.

Omenana, a speculative fiction magazine featur­ing writing from Africa and the African Diaspora, skews very dark this month. In Ancient Egypt the god Sobek offers young Kiya a stark choice after her father dies in “A Bridal Shroud” by Mirette Bahgat. In Osahon Ize-Iyamu‘s story “In the Garden Watching Nim Noms“, a disturbed young girl tries to ingest goodness by eating prized flowers; it does not end well for her family. In “Lee-ah (Sister)” by H.J. Golakai, a woman is chased by a supernatural being that appears in the guise of her childhood friend from another village. I especially appreciated the depiction of Miatta fleeing from a spectre with a baby firmly on her back, crying as babies do and affecting her choices. Mothers are rarely centered in adventure stories, but we know that adventure sometimes comes whether we like it or not, with or without children.

My favorite story of the issue is “Memento Mori” by Tiah Marie Beautement. A woman suffering from the chronic condition Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which causes hypermotility of the joints, is a good friend with the personification of Death. In the evenings she turns into a merperson, able to search out souls that have become detached from their bodies prematurely (Alzheimer’s suffer­ers), floating in the water. This is mostly a slice-of-life story, showing how Death genuinely cares for her, worries about her, and how she is able to help Death’s efforts. The details of how Death interacts with our world are charming, and their respectful and intimate relationship speaks volumes.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies has a solid lineup in November, leading off with “In the Ground, Before the Freeze” by Margaret Ronald. There is a society of mountain women and we learn of the rumors folks tell about their relationships with their husbands. When Katrin from the mountains meets a lowlander and they fall in love, neither of them quite knows what they’re getting themselves into. The small details of their relationship as he joins her on her farm are charming, which makes the eventual reveal about the mountain husbands all the more creepy. Jordan Kurella gives us a tale about Pira, a young girl whose father inflicts horrific abuse on her mother. Eventually, Pira goes to “The Hollow Tree” to visit the fairy that lives there and ask for a boon. Obviously fairy gifts never quite work out the way you expect them to, and I appreciated the ending and denouement of this one. “How the Mighty” by Dan Micklethwite features a working class narrator, Boden, taking his young son to his first gladiatorial fight. Boden is a well-drawn character, bad back, gambling problem and all, trying to be a good dad and clearly worried about not living up to the chal­lenge. The story is a meditation of sorts on heroism and disappointment.

I particularly enjoyed two of Fireside‘s October stories. “STET” by Sarah Gailey is a story told in the footnotes of an academic paper on the AI behind autonomous vehicles and how they weight risk in their decision making. I’m a sucker for this form, and the story imagines an author still in the white hot pangs of grief and rage. With each response to well-intentioned and genuinely caring editorial notes, the heartfelt responses followed by the tersest “STET” note carry a hefty emotional punch. “Light and Death on the Indian Battle Station” by Keyan Bowes involves Savitri, the daughter of a battle telepath. During a celebration of Diwali, her mother is called away to fight and eventually her sister is too. Lord Yama, god of death, is involved with all the telepaths, and it is with him that Savi must eventually bargain.

Apex features two fun stories in September, starting with “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer. In an alternate 1960s where adolescent girls usually capture a fairy that grants them perfect hair or skin, Amelia is a science nerd who almost dreads find­ing one. She’s a bit of a stock character, but when her fairy shows up she asks interesting questions and gets some interesting answers, helping her pick a direction for herself. Ani Fox brings us a story where “Coyote Now Wears a Suit“. Set in Hawaii, Kupu is gay, transgender, and an academic who isn’t sure if they’re going to accept a grad school offer from Harvard. Their family asks them to help bail the trickster god Coyote out of jail, apparently under the impression that he’s a distant relative, and Kupu is the only one who can see what Coyote is: “The guy’s not even in our ‘aumakua – hell, he’s not even in our pantheon.” To say that hijinks ensue is understating things: there are car crashes, ambulance rides, aunties in jail, stolen boyfriends, outings, and slapstick comedy galore. The narrator’s voice throughout is very entertaining.

In October my favorite Apex story is “The Standard of Ur” by Hassan Abdulrazzak. Told in diary style by Adam, who has been sent to Iraq from the British Museum, this near future imagines Iraq achieving peace through particularly invasive means. When Adam, in his particularly clueless and colonialist way, demands to visit the ancient city of Ur despite his liason’s warnings, his trip quickly goes off the rails. His original mission was to judge whether Iraq was ready to receive the artefact of the title through repatriation, and the story challenges the entire idea of who gets to make such judgements. It’s not subtle, but it’s definitely thoughtful.

Terraform has been publishing a consistently strong string of SF this year. September brings two critiques of capitalism in “Con Con” by Russell Nichols and “Pig Guts” by Troy Farah. “Con Con” is a job market where prisoners can earn release from jail by getting hired by companies as advertisers, getting a PR control chip embedded in the process. Nate Campbell hasn’t been having much luck, so a friend encourages him to try pitching to a lab-grown meat burger joint. He gives the pitch of his life, but events take a surprising turn. The idea of corporate prisons enabling even more corporate exploitation of convicts (and their desperate hopes pinned to such a system) is sadly realistic, although Nichols’s story is as funny as it is tragic. In “Pig Guts”, Bob is employed to be unemployed, given a basic income so he can participate in consumer capitalism to the fullest. A human-analog pig in the back and medical devices in the house provide instant replacements for any organs he might burn through by smoking, drinking, and overeating. Bob starts to empathize with the pig, eventually naming it and feeling like it’s com­municating with him. While real-world experiments with basic income have very different outcomes, the metaphorical resonance with the pig lounging ready for the slaughter is obvious.

I would also like to note a story by Nisi Shawl in e-flux, an out-of-the-way venue for most genre readers. “New Action” imagines a very different system of abuse by capitalism, whereby any collective organiza­tion (starting with freecycling groups but expanding from there) is suppressed by antitrust actions from giant corporations, eventually completely curtailing any form of online social organizing. Using a much more complicated structure than the Terraform stories, including linked vignettes set in 2025 interspersed with Wikipedia articles from 2028, the story shows how some groups work around the system using technology such as high-altitude balloons and drones, as well as encoded communications based on Incan knotwork. It takes careful reading to trace the threads of narrative through the mosaic story, but Shawl de­picts a fascinating blend of high tech, low tech, and human organizational systems.

Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores is a new-to-me venue that has been publishing since 2016. Based on their September story, “The Mirror Crack’d” by Jordan Taylor, I’ll be returning for more. Taylor’s story delves deep into the mythos of the Holy Grail in a story focused on Elaine, a grail-obsessed young woman who finds work in Cornwall as governess to a girl whose magic manifested late. They connect over the grail legends as Elaine also tries to help her control her magic and master the shadows that haunt her. They start a quest of their own, and the story takes a dark turn. When Elaine realizes that things have gone too far, it’s too late to turn back. I appreciated the ending of the story, and there are hints of another interesting story tucked in between the climax and the denouement.

Recommended Stories

“Memento Mori”, Tiah Marie Beautement (Omenana #12)
“STET”, Sarah Gailey (Fireside 10/18)
“Queen Lily”, Theodora Goss (Lightspeed 11/18)
“When We Were Starless”, Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 9/18)
“Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy”, Theodore McCombs (Lightspeed 11/18)
“Con Con”, Russell Nichols (Terraform 9/18)

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 December 2018 issue of Locus.

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