Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: BCS, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Tor.com, and Diabolical Plots
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/16/20
Strange Horizons 1/6/20, 1/20/20
Tor.com 1/8/20, 1/15/20
Diabolical Plots 1/20
Beneath Ceaseless Skies # 295 brings us a new Marissa Lingen story, always a treat. “Every Tiny Tooth and Claw (or: Letters from the First Month of the New Directorate)” is an epistolary story told through missives between a separated couple. They’re both academics with different fields of study; one stayed in their home city while the other went elsewhere both for field research and to get away from some political upheaval. That upheaval turns deadly over the course of the story, and the tone of the letters does a great job of implying much, much more than they’re saying. The love and concern of both the letter writers shines through the lines as well – a nice balance to the intrigue plot that’s more hinted at than shown.
In January’s Strange Horizons I appreciated “The Marriage Book” by Mitchell Shanklin. It centers on the metaphor of a couple writing a book together as they live their lives together: a joint effort that starts in joy but requires compromises over time. Some couples are able to settle into their stories, but Sammeth and John start having troubles. For a very short story (roughly 1,500 words) it packs a punch with a lot to unpack. In contrast, “One Hand in the Coffin” by Justin C. Key is not a story I enjoyed at all – it is psychological and supernatural horror. Corey is a young boy who has experienced a lot of trauma in his short life. His mother is doing her best to hold everything together after their father walks out and his older brother Michael dies, including taking Corey and his twin sister Alisha to regular therapy. However, a puppet that is intended to help Corey cope quickly becomes the focus of his intense distress, slowly taking on a life of its own. As Corey tries to handle the puppet we learn more about the events surrounding Michael’s death, and Corey and Alisha both have to face what has happened and what is happening. It is incredibly disturbing, but also amazingly well done. Key may not have many publications to his credit yet (two previous stories, if I’m reading ISFDB correctly), but I hope he keeps writing. He has a perspective that I suspect many people will value.
The pair of science fiction stories in Lightspeed in January are interesting and quieter, eschewing plot pyrotechnics for stories that border on the quotidian. “The Men Who Change the World” by Christopher East features Adam, a low-level employee at Ubiquity Ltd. in a timeline that we come to realize is not our own. Feeling down on his luck, Adam is an easy recruitment target for industrial espionage, but there’s a lot to wonder about just what Ubiquity is actually doing, and whether the world would be better or worse off without it. “She’d Never Had a Name Before” by J.R. Dawson imagines two sisters finding each other across timelines – in each woman’s universe the other had died young, and they’d grown up with the same parents tinged with similar but different family tragedies. I appreciated how the relationship between the two women develops, sidestepping any obvious sentimentality.
Tor.com also starts the year on a quieter note, releasing a triplet of stories in Harry Turtledove‘s State of Jefferson universe. In this world, various cryptids are real, so it’s no surprise that Bill Williamson, sasquatch, is governor of a state that formed out of parts of California and Oregon early in the 20th century. January’s stories “Something Fishy“, “Always Something New“, and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” all deal with rural state politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as Bill has to manage things like fishing disputes between indigenous tribes and merfolk, the discovery of a new cryptid species in one of the rivers and how that might bring some positive publicity to the state, and the return of a sasquatch diplomat who had been caught up in the Iran hostage crisis. Bill is a humane, down-to-earth politician who’s happy to get away from the office, and these stories all share a kind of quiet nostalgia for a wished-for past when politics might have been more useful and less polarized than it seems today. The next week brought something completely different with a Rich Larson story in his cyberpunk crime caper mode. “How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar” features smart criminals going up against a deeply violent crime lord in an attempt to steal a valuable MacGuffin of bioengineered art. There are crosses and double-crosses, pickpocketing, and time spent in a VR that makes the real world more disorienting to navigate. These kind of high tech, David vs. Goliath schemes are some of Larson’s most fun stories to read.
Diabolical Plots had some interesting stories in January. “This is What the Boogeyman Looks Like” by T.J. Berg is fairly straightforward horror. A man has experienced an intense fear of closets since his younger brother was kidnapped when they were children. The fear affects his entire adult life, and he finally takes steps to confront it. The story takes an unusual turn when the closet door opens once again. Berg does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension. “Beldame” by Nickolas Furr imagines a young epileptic m an t raveling the country by bus to meet his boyfriend out in Colorado. One stop along the way is in a very odd town in Kansas, where the houses all face to the west. He meets an old woman who gives him a choice and a glimpse into a very different world. I appreciated the character’s reaction to the opportunity and how the story unfolded from there. Mari Ness brings us “Gorilla in the Streets“, a celebrity interview with a Wall Street titan who is also, literally, a gorilla. The story didn’t take the easy satirical approach I was expecting, and instead heads off into more nuanced territory.
“One Hand in the Coffin”, Justin C. Key (Strange Horizons 1/20/20)
“Every Tiny Tooth and Claw (or: Letters from the First Month of the New Directorate)”, Marissa Lingen (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/16/20)
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 March 2020 issue of Locus.
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