Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, and Future Science Fiction Digest

Clarkesworld 7/21
Tor.com 7/7, 7/21/21
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/17, 7/1/21
Lightspeed 7/21
Future Science Fiction Digest 6/21

July’s Clarkesworld has seven stories that range far and wide across the genre spaces. We begin with “Promises We Made Under A Brick-Dark Sky” by Karen Osborne, which uses the permeability of “evaporating genres” (as fellow Locus columnist Gary Wolfe has termed it) to set up and subvert our expectations in interesting ways. The story starts with Elissa, having killed a god and watched angel corpses fall around her, protecting her baby and finding out that her lover has shown up as promised, but with a new wife. As they move towards their prophesied destiny, we slowly realize that the world itself isn’t at all what we expected from the opening. From Grace Chan we have “He Leaps for the Stars, He Leaps for the Stars”, and by the end of the story I wound up appreciating the layers contained in that seemingly redundant title. Yennie is a young man genetically bred for superstardom. Living on Enceladus, his life is choreographed down to the minute with only a surface-level concern for his well-being. A rich fan wins a lottery to ride around in his head for a day, thanks to his cybernetic upgrades, and it turns out that she might have ulterior motives. This portrait of fame with its costs and benefits is very well done.

When the Sheaves Are Gathered” by Nick Wolven focuses on Johnny, a middle-aged gay man in the 1980s. After a particularly raucous party a young man named Kip has disappeared from his guest bedroom, and Johnny finds it hard to even remember who he was. Every time we see Johnny thereafter, the world is more and more depopulated – not that people are dying, but that they’ve never been. He knows there’s something wrong, but can’t quite put his finger on it. Through­out this Twilight Zone-feeling narrative, I thought that it was reaching for one particular metaphor, but the end went in a different direction – it’s always great to see a story that works on many levels. The theme of remembering and forgetting is continued with “Preserved in Amber” by Samantha Murray. This story is told from two viewpoints. Niu Yi has been chosen as one of a limited group of humans to travel with an alien vessel. Before she leaves on what will likely be a one-way trip, she visits her grandmother in the Miao region of China. We also get the story of Vanda in Australia, who saw the alien ship land and was a key researcher working on decoding its message. Both are well-developed characters with families and pasts, and Niu Yi especially has to think carefully about what it means to preserve the memories of a people.

Two more stories focus on the kind of scenarios you can only get in science fiction. “I’m Feeling Lucky” by Leonid Kaganov (translated by Alex Shvartsman) imagines a world where time-travel devices are just about as cheap as AA batteries, but they’re one way – they can only go into the future. Everyone assumes that the future will be better than the present, as when the protagonist’s mother sends his grandfather, dying of cancer, one hundred years into the future in the hope that a cure will have been found. There are a lot of assumptions built into that kind of plan, and eventually our narrator embarks on a time travel tour advancing logarithmically á la H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and ends up in places he never could have dreamed of. In “The Falling” by MV Melcer we learn about a family on what seems to be a generation starship made of rings. No one wants to be “sent down” to lower rings, but that is determined on a point value system – more points for valuable skills, less for having multiple children, etc. Our protagonist eventually works his way up to the top ring in Engineering, and we learn why the lower rings are so risky and why this system, as inhumane as it is, might actually be the best of many horrible alternatives. They’re fighting an inexorable battle against space-time itself, and it’s nice to see a generation starship story engage so strongly with the space outside its vacuum-sealed hull. Rich Larson brings us back to the near future in “Last Nice Day”, set in rural Canada. In a story that reminds me more than a little of J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948), the narrator is a man who is back home after some a traumatic event, distancing himself from the world by narrating it to himself, pointing out scene, setting, character, and foreshadowing.

The Wild Cards story at Tor.com in July is “Skin Deep” by Alan Brennert. If several Clarkes­world stories dabble their toes in Twilight Zone-style waters, this one cannonballs into the pool. When the wild card virus first arrived in 1946, 16-year-old Trina lost her parents and had her face hideously deformed. She found refuge in a freak show at Santa Monica pier and has lived ever since in the Jokertown that arose there. All the jokers are stigmatized, but there’s a chance that things might get better (or worse) when Rod Serling walks into town. I appreciated the way this story highlights Serling’s humanism. Dueling perspectives on humanity also feature in Mat­thew Kressel’s “Now We Paint Worlds”. In the very far future three terraformed and inhabited worlds have disappeared. The galaxy-spanning Free Trade Union is tracking down every lead, no matter how bizarre, and agent Orna gets one of the strangest, finding a misanthropic hermit guru who is rumored to be involved. Despite her frantic worry over her mother, who was on one of the planets, she finds and talks to the gentleman, and of course we learn that he is, in fact, the nexus of these events. Truly existential questions are on the line as Orna faces cosmic forces much larger than one man or woman.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #332 features fairytale protagonists railing against their stories in vari­ous ways. “A Flower Cannot Love the Hand” by Aimee Ogden imagines a woman created from flowers by a mage-king, designed to be the wife for a cursed prince. Her number-one ques­tion is whether she has a soul, but her life soon becomes something like a hell as she’s trapped by her marriage. She doesn’t accept her fate pas­sively, and there is more than one path to freedom for her. “My Mirror, My Opposite” by Y. M. Pang imagines the Little Mermaid story from the prince’s point of view. This prince has long been tormented both by his father and by his feet, which wish only to be in the ocean. From his perspective, the person who rescued him from drowning did him no favors, and when he meets the mermaid in her human form he is furious. They have to conspire together to change their own fates.

The next issue, #333, features two women solv­ing mysteries involving strange lands. “For the World’s More Full of Weeping” by Andrew Dykstal gives us Tarrow, a half-fae woman who is a “stepper,” someone who can move between the human and fae realms. This is important because the teenage son of a wealthy merchant has gone missing and it’s feared that the fae may have taken him. Tarrow visits the town and learns that there’s more trauma and tragedy to the boy’s story than first admitted, and it will take the combined skills and resources of both herself and a rival stepper to see the job done. In “The Witness Brûska Lai” by Aaron Perry the titular protagonist is summoned to the Palace of Confluence. It is a strange place of overlapping but non-interacting domains where royals wait to be “born” into Lai’s world. One of the key figures has gone missing, and Lai will need to tease out the rules governing this world if she is to have any hope of tracking down the missing princess. Both of these stories ran a little long, but that was likely necessary given their complexity.

In July Lightspeed made a slight change to its format: instead of two original pieces and two reprints in each section (SF and fantasy), they’ll be running one piece of original flash fiction, two original short stories, and one reprint. In this issue the science fiction flash piece is “No Lies Detected” by Russell Nichols about an old man giving lie detecting ability to a young robot in a hostile world; it doesn’t turn out the way the maker expects. In fantasy the short piece is “How to Become an Ancestor” by Nicole Sconiers, imag­ining the afterlife of a young black woman killed violently, the kind of death that’s memorialized in a community mural. Also in science fiction is “A Smell of Jet Fuel” by Andrew Dana Hudson. The narrator is a time-travel tour guide taking a group to the top of the South Tower of the World Trade Center as the 9/11 attacks unfold. His rou­tine is disrupted when a woman comes to him and it turns out she’s not from 2001, either. She needs him to take her back to the future, but messing with the flow of time never goes smoothly. In fantasy we have a new Rachel Swirsky story, “Innocent Bird”. Shoko is definitely in love with her friend Ichika, but just as definitely trying to deny it. She cuts off as much contact with her friend as possible, dropping out of their shared choir and avoiding her. She’s the daughter of a winged woman who abandoned her and her father when Shoko was young; now with this first flowering of love Shoko is starting to feel feathers growing. Given both her anger towards her mother and her deep love of the ocean and swimming, everything about this adds up to inner turmoil. Swirsky swirls together a lot of the angst of growing up without letting it devolve into melodrama.

Future SF Digest continues its strong run of bringing science fiction from around the world to our digital doorsteps. The lead story in issue #11 is “Knights of the Phantom Realm” by Wanxiang Fengian (translated by Nathan Faries), where young Gebu is upset upon learning that he’s adopted. That trauma is quickly eclipsed as some kind of nano swarm attacks his town, rendering ev­erything about it strange and illusory. Luckily he is befriended by a white cat who can talk and knows some of the lay of the land, and they go off on a quest. There are many layers of “the world is not as it seems” in this story, and it’s quite well done. “The Jellyfish” by K.A. Teryna (translated by editor Alex Shvartsman) gives us Kalina, living in a dystopian virtual world where all your status and perks come from getting ‘likes,” and she hasn’t been getting any lately. Suddenly she is visited by a digital jellyfish that she can trade in for a whole lot of status, but as she journeys to bring it to the central location it starts to evoke strange memories within her. The ending has implications that recast our whole understanding of her world. “Follow” by T.R. Siebert has Anna being kept alive through space by an advanced all-encompassing swarm of nanobots. She’s following her lover, Meda, but finding nothing but dead world after dead world. Between her exploration of one particular planet and flashbacks, the story opens up into something much larger than it first appears.


Recommended Stories

“He Leaps for the Stars, He Leaps for the Stars”, Grace Chan (Clarkesworld 7/21)

“The Falling”, MV Melcer (Clarkesworld 7/21)

“My Mirror, My Opposite”, Y.M. Pang (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #332)

“Knights of the Phantom Realm”, Wanxiang Fengian (Future SF Digest #11)

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 2021 issue of Locus.

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