Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Lightspeed, New Myths, Factor Four, and Transcendent 4

Lightspeed 11/19
New Myths 9/19
Factor Four 7/19
Transcendent 4, Bogi Takács, ed. (Lethe Press) October 2019.

Dominica Phetteplace returns to Robot Coun­try, an area near the US/Mexico border that robots have claimed and essentially shut off to outsiders and surveillance, in “Her Appetite, His Heart” in November’s Lightspeed. Javi is on a romantic quest to find his ex-girlfriend Isla, whom we met in the previous story “One Thousand Beetles in a Jumpsuit” in August 2019. Javi’s quest takes a very meandering path, including a stop at a monastery, before he tries to enter Robot Country proper. The robots there allow him in, but his journey continues not to follow a straight path until a crisis forces char­acters to intersect. I suspect future stories will fill in quite a bit of information about what’s been set up so far. On the “fantasy” side, Yoon Ha Lee gives us an almost adorable story of a world about to be annihilated in “The Second-Last Client“. The narrator is there to save particular clients, but first their dragon Rawk needs to stop for one last peppermint mocha. It turns out that the people they’re there to save are characters in books, books of which every copy will be lost when this world is destroyed. Everyone faces the end in their own way, with this particular client expressing more nobility than most.

This is the first issue I’ve picked up of New Myths, which is obviously my loss as at #48 they appear to be going strong. This issue starts with an interesting story of human/equine shapeshifters, “Equus Caballus” by Tiah Marie Beautement. Set in the American West with characters fluent in both Spanish and English, it tells of Izán coming back to Amaia and joining her in protecting a herd of wild horses from a government cull. Their relationship is solidly the center of the story, and as well as both characters being magical Amaia is also clearly neuro atypical. This is a great concept, well executed. There are more tales of animal/human relationships in the issue. “Good Boy, Blue” by Odessa Cole features a boy that we follow into adulthood in rural America. He’s surrounded by examples of down-and-out redneck toxic masculinity, but by sometimes sharing the prescient dreams of his uncle’s dog Blue, he might be able to avoid that particular trap. In “The Hour of the Wolf” by Donald McCarthy a sapient dog Rupert is part of a small crew on an in­terstellar rescue mission. They’re incredibly creeped out when a distress call brings them to an apparently lifeless planet. Rupert can understand all the conversations around him but can’t talk himself, and the crew don’t real­ize the extent of his intelligence. Eventually he and another alienated member of the crew are presented with a choice of futures, and Rupert heartbreakingly runs straight into constraints that he’d never been aware of before. In this company the “Ghosts of the Cortilanes” by Kathryn Yelinek is more lighthearted, despite opening with a recently widowed woman re­turning to the campsite where she was doing field research with her husband on obviously magical birds. Their research was overturning too much orthodoxy, so the academy has sent out some representatives to shut her down. As she and they bumble their way through both the political and pastoral landscape, they stumble onto a discovery so profound even the doubters may change their minds.

Turning more towards the human/machine dynamic, we have “The Universal Directory of Dangerous Places” by (as far as I can tell) debut author Elise Kim. A man is so severely wounded in a heroic accident that when he recovers he is more than 50% machine, and is classified as a “Lacking,” someone who is also largely disconnected from human emotions. He sets out to explore those eponymous Dangerous Places in hopes of reconnecting with something of himself, and the ones we see him visit are magnificently described. The story is tinged with melancholy throughout. In the poetry section I’d like to commend “The Carousel” by Ophelia Leong for its descriptions of car­ousel animals out in a silent forest at night, and “oubliette” by Hal Y. Zhang for its portrayal of how we might convince ourselves to forget even amazing things (like an alien space egg) when we’re told after the fact that they’re a hoax.

Factor Four is a venue specializing in flash fic­tion, and many of its stories are quite effective in hitting their marks and not overstaying their welcome. “Doors” by Jenny Rae Rappaport is a metaphorical story about mental illness: none of the magical doors in the story are quite right for the (second person POV) protagonist, but eventually taking medication gives them a window through which they can move forward. “Monochromatic Mandate” by Milo James Fowler is an interesting thought experiment in civic engagement, where people vote in snap elections about all kinds of issues, and the way they voted is immediately and visibly public knowledge. I’m always on the lookout for any stories that engage with the fact that the domi­nant form of government in the 21st century is the democracy/representative republic (involv­ing citizens who can vote and run for office) rather than the hierarchical feudalisms that are over-represented in both fantasy and space opera. “The Definitions of Professional At­tire” by Evergreen Lee looks at how aliens in a police department can be easily sidelined by seemingly neutral departmental rules meant to make the public more comfortable. In a rather nicer than usual ghost story, “Livin’ Doll” by Mareen Bowden sketches the life of a woman haunted by the ghost of her first lover. He died in 1959 when they were in high school, and while her life afterward is far from perfect, he helps make it better where he can.

The 2019 volume marks the fourth in the Tran­scendent reprint anthology series, featuring the year’s best transgender speculative fiction as chosen this year by editor Bogi Takács. The editor must have faced a challenge holding the table of contents to 20 stories. Thanks to the special gender pronouns issue of Capricious magazine and anthologies such as Name­less Woman: An Anthology of Fiction by Trans Women of Color there was even more to choose from in 2018 than usual. Frankly, I would have had a hard time not simply filling up most of the page count with a full reprint of the Capricious issue, which was far and away one of the most impressive single magazine issues of 2018. As it is, Takács held eirself to two stories from Capricious and two from Glittership, with the rest of the stories coming from markets both bigger (Lightspeed, Strange Horizons) and smaller (Vulture Bones, Augur). I particularly liked the choice of “Ad Astra Per Aspera” by Nino Cipri to open the volume, a satirical piece about a person losing their gender in Kansas, talking about their relation­ship with it and wondering about who might pick it up. It’s funny and arch and doesn’t take itself too terribly seriously, setting a great tone for the start. While not everything can have a happy ending, there are a lot to be found here, although I’ll try not to spoil anything too much. There’s an old murder mystery to be solved via remembrance of past lives in a trailer park in “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of my Births” by José Pablo Iriarte. There’s a vampire looking for an organ donation and finding love as well in “You Inside Me” by Tori Curtis. One of my favorites may be the kid who hacks an animatronic dinosaur to give his date a ride to their prom in “Sphexa, Start Dinosaur” by Nibedita Sen.

The wide range of genres, settings, and cultural backgrounds is also delightful. “The Art of Quilting” by Matthias Klein takes us on a tour of the solar system as Vin moves from colony to colony to stay one step ahead of nir’s overbearing family. Ne takes to quilting an artistic block to reflect each planet or moon nir’s stayed at, and eventually ne is able to find a much more welcoming family. “Assistance” by Kathryn DeFazio gives us a person suffering from mental trauma after witnessing a death, ab­solutely terrified by the need to journey home and genuinely helped by support robot PAGE; a quiet, real, and moving story. In “The Sixth World” by Kylie Ariel Bemis Vincent is an under-employed voice actor who stays close with his sister back on the Indian reservation where he grew up; she is one of the few who is aware and supportive of Viola, the woman Vincent sometimes allows himself to become at night. While a huge phys­ics experiment might spell the end of the world, Vincent wonders if he’ll be able to come out to his friend and crush Delilah, all while Indian cultural myths are woven beautifully through the tale. One of the sweetest ghost stories I’ve read recently is “Ghosts” by Blue Neustifter, where a ghost helps a person who is transitioning by mov­ing objects to where they might be most helpful and communicating via rearranging refrigerator magnets. Overall this is an anthology to be proud of, and one that I think will have something for everyone, from high drama to pure fun.

Recommended stories

“Equus Caballus”, Tiah Marie Beautement (New Myths 9/19)
“The Universal Directory of Dangerous Places”, Elise Kim (New Myths 9/19)

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 2019 issue of Locus.

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