Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Lightspeed, Fantasy, Nightmare, and F&SF
January’s Lightspeed leans decidedly grim to kick off the new year, with a majority of the original fiction opting away from happy endings. It’s a trend that will continue in sibling publications Fantasy and Nightmare (though that last certainly makes sense, given the Nightmare’s horror focus). In Lightspeed, though, Aimee Ogden’s flash fiction “Dissent: A Five-Course Meal (With Suggested Pairings)” opens on a very bleak and sensually shattering future following a queer narrator facing a hard backslide of civil and personal rights. Framed as a series of dishes in a meal, the courses aren’t really food, but rather the tastes of loss, despair, and grief, though a spot of resilient hope remains caught in the throat like a popcorn kernel. Evocatively told, it’s certainly not a pleasant read, but it is powerful and punchy. Similarly, “Up Falling” by Jendayi Brooks-Flemister finds a broken world, and one that the main characters are trying to save through the special disease-resistant blood of the narrator. Trauma and loss, though, make the prospect of escaping Earth and reaching a place of safety perhaps out of reach. It’s another work that does a great job with sensations, with feelings, with playing with hope and the bitterness of failure.
The issue’s only novelette, “Cale and Stardust Battle the Mud Gobblers of Hudson Valley” by Lincoln Michel, steps back from more apocalyptic visions to settle in a world poised on the brink of disaster, though not a new one. Climate change has been threatening the world for some time, and in this story two former activists find their priorities changing as they move into the upper middle class and and have more to lose. It’s a keen vision of how energy and resistance can falter, how generational failure starts and ends with individual capitulation, and the sense of inevitability that surrounds it all. And really, it’s only until the final original in the issue, Vanessa Fogg’s “An Address to the Newest Disciples of the Lost Words”, that the issue seems to turn a corner and embrace the idea that change is possible. The story speaks of the inspiration to follow and study words imbued with power. It’s a well that can run dry, but that doesn’t necessarily stay dry. And, regardless of how much time passes, the story recognizes that for some things, it’s never too late to embrace passion, to follow dreams. It’s a warm close to an otherwise rather chilling issue.
Fantasy acts a bit in reverse, offering up the charming and fun (and brief) “The Mirror Test” by Moses Ose Utomi first, a story where the narrator has to deal with a rather terrible betrayal that will be all too familiar for certain pet owners. Then, in Shalini Srinivasan’s “Markets: A Beginner’s Guide”, childhood friendships and stories aren’t enough to protect Lavanya from a stranger come knocking on her door. Not when she’s sinking into despair over the failing health of her mother. Horror runs in veins through the story as two friends learn the reality of folklore, and the price of being ignorant of its dangers. The use of fictionally quoted material in the text creates a great layering of narratives, bridging Lavanya’s story to a scholarship rooted in tragedy and the need to warn others of what’s lurking in the shadows of the banyan trees. Horror also informs the other stories in the issue, from the gallows humor of a monster-hunter trying to sell their services in Saswati Chatterjee’s “Pest Control” to a neat twist on vampire tropes in Corey Flintoff’s “Free Coffin”.
With Nightmare, at least the expectation is rarely for uplifting narratives. The horrors here are no less visceral or moving, though, and the issue opens on the stunning “Dick Pig” by Ian Muneshwar, which finds Edwin in the cold of his recently-passed Aunt Norma’s secluded house in search of a special treasure she might have left for him. What he finds instead, well…. The piece is intense and strange, revealing Edwin as deeply messy, full of hungers and drives that he knows don’t quite fit with the rest of the world. That keep him isolated. Alone. On the edge of shame and anger. And yet there is something in the old house waiting for him. A chance, a passage, a portal – an invitation, and the story does a fantastic job of following along on Edwin’s journey, revealing a world of deep shadows that people can pretend vanishes so long as the lights stay on. The rest of the issue maintains the creeping dread, too, with Kiyomi Appleton Gaines’s “The Elements of Her Self”, about a young woman and the confining, nightmarish situation she finds herself in, and Jordan Shiveley’s very short “New Meat(TM)”, where a second-person “you” slowly embrace a dreaming hunger that leaks into the waking world.
The January/February 2022 issue of F&SF open with the posthumous “The Art of Victory” by Eugie Foster, in which Mouria is a kind of crafter of people for a great game, who finds herself drawn into the game itself, a pawn who must scramble to avoid being destroyed. Along the way a rival becomes something different, and ability, potential, and legacy all get explored and complicated. All the while it reveals a core relationship that is tempestuous but powerful and beautiful and, in the end, just a bit haunting. It’s a bittersweet read, and one that kicks off an issue that, more often than not, features interesting but strained relationships that grow between some very different people. In Nick DiChario’s “Animale dei Morti”, for instance, a family custom surrounding marriage leads to resurrection, destruction, and annulment, only to resolve into something almost tender, almost lovely, a new relationship that might be poison, might be a spiteful trick of a cunning witch, but might also be something more. Either way, the storytelling, reminiscent of town gossip, is sharp and well captured.
Maiga Doocy’s “Salt Calls to Salt” is another that looks at the power and quirks of relationships, where Zelda is a woman but also maybe a mermaid, whose passions ignite the secret in her blood and cause scales to grow out of her skin. Only routine and dispassion ground her, but also cut her off from all of what she feels, from what she yearns for, and the story does a wonderful job building her to a place where she can fully take ownership of her actions and her desires. What’s warm and triumphant in Doocy’s story, though, finds a more shadowed take in “There Won’t Be Questions” by Joe Baumann where Harry, a young man with the strange ability to summon lost things, is full of desire he can’t quite name or act on. Without understanding his power, he’s pushed to use it to bring back lost pets, all while his relationship with his boyfriend suffers with the realities of what this power could mean, and the toll it takes on Harry. It’s a quiet and sensual piece, aching and raw, with a sliver of horror that’s memorable and chilling. And finally, the issue closes on J. A. Pak’s “The Gentle Dragon Tells His Tale of Love”, which is a slow-burn romance about two strangers’ chance meeting and the careful way they build a life together. It’s a moving piece, stumbling just a little where it leans a little heavily on the inevitability of sex in loving relationships. But the story of the characters is about shared affection, respect, and resourcefulness, capturing a great sense of patience and kindness.
The issue doesn’t only have stories about complex romances, though. Corruption is a theme that works through a number of the works, interrogating how people react to systems designed to harm and to violate human and non-human rights. “Prison Colony Optimization Protocols” by Auston Habershaw uses humor to explore punitive so-called justice, and casts an AI named Roxie as a reluctant rebel after being sentenced to managing a prison installation as part of their punishment. It’s a keen piece of fiction, using the charming and earnest voice of Roxie to show the stark injustice of their situation, and that of the prisoners they’re tasked with overseeing. M L Clark’s “Proximity Games” also deals with distance, confinement, and corruption, but moves away from humor and mixes melancholy and curiosity on a world humans weren’t supposed to visit, but where one young woman finds herself balancing harm and possibility, having to still herself in order to not worsen the damage being done by others – in order to make new connections and earn trust rather than forcing the matter. It’s complex and captivating work. Innocent Chizaram Ilo pulls back from outer space and finds an all-too-real study in corruption in Lagos, Nigeria in “The City and the Thing Beneath It”, where brutally suppressed protests coincide with a descent from the sky. An arrival that is also a return of something old. Older than the human occupiers of the city. Moving between vignettes of people living in the city and snippets of lost histories, the story captures the contours of a sinkhole slowly widening, opening its great maw, hungry and waiting, even as people try their best to ignore it, to deny it, to live like it’s not there at all. A resonating read.
“Dick Pig”, Ian Muneshwar (Nightmare 1/22)
“The City and the Thing Beneath It”, Innocent Chizaram Ilo (F&SF 1-2/2)
This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.
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