This month I’m able to say goodbye to 2021; you can find my year-end wrap up elsewhere, but I’ll say that 2021 was pretty wild, but in ways I hope end up being more positive than 2020 was. As always, I was only able to read a fraction of all the short fiction out there, and only review about two-thirds of what I read. Every year I look at the awards lists and think, How could I have missed all those? But I never feel deprived; there’s so much good work circulating online and in print right now.
Strange Horizons brings the year to a strong close with some especially interesting stories from debut/early career writers. As part of a theme issue on Friendship, we get “The Constellations Are Unrecognizable Here” by Andrew Joseph White. Amavon is a trans male teen, a survivor of horrific military experiments who has been picked up by the hospital ship SSE Patroclus. He is enamored with another trans male teen, Jenea, who set himself on fire to escape a forced marriage. Amavon is desperate to get top surgery but the nurses don’t believe it’s the right thing for him; he steels himself by thinking of Jenea’s example, but Jenea refuses to let his story be used that way. An intense story with multiple layers of trauma. Then there’s “Little Lila” by Susannah Rand, as disturbing as so many stories about middle school (11-13-year-olds) are. Lila had once been adored by friends, but as they move toward adolescence she feels abandoned; the coolest kids have Nats that let them change their appearance almost at will and include constant updates; she can’t afford that, but maybe her new friend Macy can. The story definitely captures the distortion field that falls over the members of middle school cliques and makes every slight into an Earth shattering event.
In other early career/debut stories I appreciated “Campfire Stories” by Rachael Cupp, in which a trio of cowgirls is described in ways that make them seem very much like witches. They each have a tale to tell: two tell their own stories and one imagines the future looking back on them – a nice bit of metanarrative. “Coiffeur Seven” by Kiran Kaur Saini imagines an AI robot that has a limbic system interface to help them give haircuts to hospice patients who can no longer groom themselves. Veena comes in incommunicative and mostly paralyzed, but when the bot opens up the interface it starts receiving images of Veena’s life and just how much long, un-cut hair is important to her culture and her family as Sikhs. Veena just happened to be a neuroprogrammer in real life, so it doesn’t end there. I especially liked the bot’s narrative voice at the beginning and how it changes over the course of this powerful story. “An Array of Worlds as a Rose Unfurling in Time” by Shreya Ila Anasuya is a story of star-crossed lovers told from the woman’s point of view. They meet at a market where some mingling is still tolerated, but as with the intense disapproval of Hindu/Muslim relationships in today’s India, they are told in no uncertain terms that their relationship is unacceptable. A fortune-teller points the way for Sarika and her lover to escape to better worlds, but that is a minor part of the story compared to the tale of their love.
“The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin (1954) must hold the record for the short story that has angered the most people for the longest time. The latest author to take a swing at it is Aimee Ogden with “The Cold Calculations” in December’s Clarkesworld. She uses the story as a focus for rage at an economic system that lets oligarchs make financial decisions that cost the lives of anyone and everyone else, but especially poor/brown/female people. After all, was it physics that dictated the razor-thin margin of the original flight, or cost-savings? Another indictment of our world’s systems comes from “Just One Step, and Then the Next” by E.N. Díaz. Doña Chuy is an older woman when the military takes over during political upheaval; her adult son disappears trying to reach her. She begins publicly trying to find him and her small acts draw both police and social media attention. The emotion stays high with Rich Larson’s “You Are Born Exploding”, which brought me to tears at the end. An upper-middle-class woman is home with her little son Jack, having been basically abandoned by her husband. There’s a xenovirus turning people into Shamblers trying to reach the ocean and causing lockdowns everywhere, and she’s trying to keep her normal life together, even as Jack has been diagnosed with a likely terminal illness. It rides a tricky balance without ever becoming too sympathetic or too disapproving. There’s also a nice debut from David Goodman, “Vegvisir”. In this classic running-out-of-air-on-Mars story, most human inhabitants of Mars are descended from Icelandic geothermal engineers. That’s how Gunnar Kristjánsson finds himself in dire straits, trying to reach a supply depot during a dust storm that also throws off electronic navigation systems. Goodman ramps up the tension deftly and drops plenty of hints about the forces that may be at play on the surface.
Wrapping up a strong year, Beneath Ceaseless Skies had two issues in December. The first features stories that are part of larger series. “The Fox Daughter” by Richard Parks returns us to the land of Lord Yamada, who is asked by a friend to shelter a nogitsune, her daughter Kimiko, a part-fox. Minor mayhem follows in her wake, but Yamada is aided by his wife Tagako-hime in smoothing the waters (although most of her actions are off-stage). From David Tallerman we get a story set in his Tales of Easie Damasco universe, “Fall to Rise”. The thief Toro finds himself condemned by the corrupt Judicaar regime to a public gladiator-style event where the prisoners compete to survive on thin ledges above a smooth, funnel-like pit where if they fall they’ll certainly be doomed. The final survivor will win life… in prison. Toro’s strategy for both survival and freedom here is ingenious and leaves him with vengeance on his mind.
The next issue has “Letters from a Travelling Man” the first published story by W.J. Tattersdill. Horviss is a Mainland guy who is setting foot out in the islands for the first time, seeking the original home of the one to whom he addresses his letters, Stusan. Although locals immediately notice his awkwardness, there are several who go out of their way to help him – no easy feat in an archipelago where islands are still splitting up in an area known as the Flurry. Overall, this is a quiet and kind sort of quest story.
I saw one story in Tor.com in December, “The Tinder Box” by Kate Elliott. She picks up on the Hans Christian Anderson tale, taking it as a starting point and then resurrecting the witch from the story a generation later to continue it. The witch, now in the form of a young maiden, beckons another soldier and makes him rich enough to become an innkeeper, and through listening to the soldiers – and the brash and boisterous prince – she learns exactly where to push in order to nudge the system towards revolution. It’s not the leverage point you might expect, and in Elliott’s capable hands we get a story with more solid motivation than the original.
“Campfire Stories”, Rachael Cupp (Strange Horizons 11/8/21)
“You Are Born Exploding”, Rich Larson (Clarkesworld 12/21)
“Coiffeur Seven”, Kiran Kaur Saini (Strange Horizons 12/13/21)
“Letters from a Travelling Man”, W.J. Tattersdill (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #345)
“The Constellations Are Unrecognizable Here”, Andrew Joseph White (Strange Horizons 11/29/21)
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