Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Diabolical Plots, and F&SF
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 2/10/22, 2/24/22
Diabolical Plots 2-3/22
Beneath Ceaseless Skies also celebrated an anniversary in February, putting out its 350th issue. To mark the occasion, two issues are stuffed with extra stories, all of them centered on a crossing of genres, on science fantasy, rather than on a theme. Yoon Ha Lee opens the festivities with “Bonsai Starships”, which weaves a narrative around a young grower of living, plant-based ships. When war comes to claim her work, though, she seeks a way not only to resist, but to reclaim the craft itself from the clutches of those who would only use it for violence. Jason Sanford’s Blood Grains mosaic comes to a close with the novella “Blood Grains Scream in Memories”. Fans of the linked stories will recognize the characters, even as the viewpoint shifts once again, this time to an older woman, a grandmother who has done much she regrets, and who finds her past catching up with her and her family. New readers might want to start at the beginning of the saga, but it can be enjoyed entirely on its own and does a great job mixing action, deep world building, and compelling character work. “Rich Growth” by Aliya Whiteley keeps the focus on transformation and the lines between people and the natural world. Here gardeners use their own blood and energy to grow vines up to precious gemflowers, a process they participate in but don’t really understand. It’s merely passed down, though that cycle might be ending, falling out of favor, and the story explores the grief and freedom that comes along with that.
Aliette de Bodard also looks at cycles breaking down, though much more intentionally, in “At the Foot of the Dragon Stair”, where the last members of an order who sought to steward time itself face the annihilation of everything they’ve built. As they discover how they might avert that disaster, they have reason to rethink just how bad it would be. “A Record of Our Meeting with the Grand Faerie Lord of Vast Space and Its Great Mysteries, Revised” by A.T. Greenblatt does some interesting things with form as well as genre, setting a faerie story in outer space with a ship stuck in time and a chronicler, Felix, discovering that just because he doesn’t do things the way he was taught he should doesn’t mean he’s without talent, or power. The structure works well with the plot, reinforcing the need for approaching problems with new and novel ways of thinking. Speaking of new ways of thinking, “Empty Appendages” by William Broom finds the narrator, a ship’s captain, in an altered state of being, invaded by an alien mind, saved only by the loyalty and love of his subordinate – though saved might be too strong a word, as the story brings them both through the horrors of coercion and loss of autonomy. Horror walks hand in hand with science fantasy here, with a constant state of dread and revulsion fighting against the care and love between the two men trying to win back their ship and get home.
February’s Diabolical Plots features two science fiction stories. “The Galactic Induction Handbook” by Mark Vandersluis is a tongue-in-cheek guide for humanity entering a larger inhabited galaxy. Full of practical, if not always practicable, advice, the work plays with tropes surrounding galaxy-wide communities. Cory Swanson looks at time travel in “Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations”, finding a narrator who has regular meetings with… himself, slowly discovering more about the meetings as he moves linearly through his life. It’s a strange but interesting look at free will, doubt, and time.
Both of the stories in the March Diabolical Plots deal with loss, with hauntings. In Devan Barlow’s “The House Diminished” a woman finds her house shrinking, her friends and housemates disappeared. The piece shows how a home can become a kind of prison, how someone can almost find comfort in a constant shrinking, if it allows them to avoid feeling the pain of isolation and loss. In “The Assembly of Graves” by Rob E. Boley, a married couple visits a haunted hotel in the hopes of finding a way through their problems. Those problems, though, turn out to be very different for each of them. Filled with twists, the story does a great job of mixing horror and romance, building an unsettling and tense atmosphere teetering on the edge of something very grim.
Moving on, the March/April issue of F&SF features guiding words from editor Sheree Renée Thomas about journeying with eyes turned toward the Sun. It’s in keeping perhaps with the idea and image of a new sun that at least 11 of the authors featured in the issue are making their F&SF debut. Especially for such an established and prestigious publication, having three quarters of their material from new authors is ambitious, and it shows a dedication to fostering newer talents, helping budding careers bloom and thrive. Rajeev Prasad even makes his professional debut with “Void”, a story about war and healing around Mars. A doctor must face the grim realities of his job, and the moral and ethical lines he’s crossed in working during conflict. It’s an impactful piece, building a grim future setting, while grounding the action in the fragile hope of a man trying to do no harm.
The idea of crossing ethical lines echoes in Tobi Ogundiran’s novelette “The Epic of Qu Shittu”, where a chronicler of stories seeks out an infamous magician, hoping to capture a truth hiding under the brutal rumors of his actions. Where he wants to find justice, though, he instead finds something much more mercurial and complicated, and sets himself on a road toward tragedy and atrocity.
Not all the lines crossed in the issue are ethical. “From This Side of the Rock” by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu features people who have crossed a physical line, a border, and now much cross a much different and cultural line, one designed to be dehumanizing and cruel. The story is heavy with the desire to survive balanced against personal and community identity, where in order to be accepted in a new place, sacrifices have to be made that make acceptance a pyrrhic victory. “Woven” by Amanda Dier is also about borders, but not between nations. In this story, Dier introduces Peter, a young boy who befriends a boggle and who finds in that relationship something real and lacking. He hears a call that might lure him into crossing the border between worlds, drawn willingly into just the kind of faerie story he’d been warned about, but finding something there that he couldn’t among his harsh grandparents.
A number of the stories also linger on the lines between life and death, grief and love. Megan Beadle’s “Dancing Little Marionettes” follows animate and sentient wooden dancers as they live and perform. It captures a sweeping romance that often stumbles into despair as families and hearts are broken and battered. Told in three acts, the classic structure allows for the pathos of loss and also the triumph of love, swelling to a conclusion that evokes the great works of dance and theatre. “These Brilliant Forms” by Phoenix Alexander also plays with love and loss, finding Captain Tomasis and her small crew confronted by something out of scale with anything they expected to find on a seemingly routine salvage job. The story explores difference, bodies, and a disaster unfolding as the job goes very wrong very quickly, leaving the captain and her crew scrambling to adapt. The theme of botched jobs and strange bodies continues in “Done in the Mire” by Adriana C. Grigore, where a woman finds herself transformed and trapped inside a well, alone but for the unfortunate corpses that are occasionally dumped in. The rules of magic bind and contain her, but might also offer a way out. Not an easy way out, but then, the story is at least in part about the dangers of trying for a short cut, an easy exploit. The issue closes on a translated work, “The Living Furniture” by Yefim Zozulya, translated by Alex Shvartsman. One of a series of translations by Shvartsman of Zozulya, who died in 1941, it’s a surreal but also sharp look at a situation where a man can afford to pay people to be his bed and his chairs, the very walls of his house. It challenges the idea that monetary compensation can make right vast inequalities. And it’s weird and unsettling in some wonderful ways.
This review and more like it in the April 2022 issue of Locus.
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