Finding a short and excellent SFF can often feel like looking for a buried treasure. Sometimes a guide is needed to help fill in the map, which will connect readers to fantastic fiction and show where X marks the story – a monthly column by Charles Pfizer.
The snow has finally melted from my yard! For most of the Northern Hemisphere, that means spring is in the air! Plants are slowly trying to penetrate, the squirrels are wonderfully laden, and the fiction is … well, complicated and stinging and so beautiful. And this month there are also some interesting and innovative blooms. From interactive storytelling to stories framed as wiki entries with annotated lyrics, the stories I summarize today show how diverse SFF can be and how creative, while losing nothing in power or impact. So grab your compass and map and let’s get to it!
“Diamonds and pearls“By JL George (Fireside Magazine # 88)
What is: Language is literally related to gems in the world of this story, when people learn words, they cough up different types of gems. And Ocean grows up learning to covet diamonds, the common language, not pearls, that only pop up when people learn words in the old language. The story finds Oceanian struggling against his culture, his heritage, his desires, a ball of conflicting emotions that threatens to be released as soon as he goes to university and meets another student, a linguist, and is forced to challenge everything he thinks he knows. The story is built around the core of this language and how we value it, how we lose it, and how we can regain it, and weave in it a warm and sharp love story at once.
Why I like it: Ocean is such a compelling figure to me, so immersed in his own nonsense, hurt and hurt by education but pretty ignorant of it, does not want to examine the ways in which he is cut off from his past, from the history of his family. He invested in the appreciation that society placed on the dominant language and the oppressed language. The new and the old. And one has to meet someone who challenges him deeply, who captivates him, who has such a different value system, to threaten this worldview. That comfort with all he lost. And it makes so much sense, it speaks so real, especially to me as an American where there is no “official language” but where there is definitely value in what languages a person knows (and does not know). And the ending is so sweet, so adorable to the heart, that I can not help but recommend going out and reading this story right away!
“The captain and commander“By CL Clark (Under the Unstoppable Sky # 326)
What is: For most of this story, the characters are marked not by their names but by their roles in a revolution that lasts far longer than anyone expected. For years they have been fighting against a tyrant, and his fortune changes with the seasons. But the captain continues to fight, and the commander continues to make sure the army has enough food and supplies, and together their love is something that gives the rest of the army hope. And the story looks at it, at these two women who give everything they have to the war and to each other, and discover that after all they may not have much left for themselves.
Why I like it: The relationship at the heart of this story is so amazing, messy and weird that I can not help but love it to the core. And the way the story floats in time, teases the different moments, the first meeting, the falls for each other, the turmoil, the resilience – it’s just a great ride that the reader gets. More than that, the story breaks expectations with the romance, moving away from what we may have been taught to look like a happy ending. I will not spoil it but the story does a wonderful job and complicates how people can love, how people can stay together, and how sometimes they need to get away. And it reveals that no relationship is as important as the people in it, and ultimately people need to do what is good and right for them, even when I may be crying a little at the end. Emotionally stunning reading!
“According to Leibniz (perhaps not what he meant); Oh, Charles Little: The Goddess of the Post Office NBs“By Isna Skita (Strange Horizons 15/03/2021)
What is: Felix’s dyad is a headless chicken that may also be a physical expression of their uncontrolled anxiety. It’s chirping. And Maayan makes a play of himself. And he’s not good at parties. Although neither does Felix, really. The story follows them as they deal with being a monad with a headless chicken dyad (not as cool as a cobra or a sexy cat), through their work at the post office, and around their lover at a co-worker. And it reveals how they begin to approach their dyad, how they can perhaps stop seeing it as an enemy and an obstacle, and instead embrace it for what it is, embrace themselves as who they are, and even begin to practice some self-care. All that is captured in a charming voice that flows, that keeps things trivial and sarcastic and amazing.
Why I like it: The story has such an energy, where Felix just tries so hard to get by, live their best lives, and have to navigate what it means and how to do it when it’s just hard to populate their body sometimes, with a headless chicken dyad and anxiety and charge. Their move is to avoid, to laugh, to joke about things. But it does not deal with their problems, and the story finds them beginning to change it, confronting the things they prefer to avoid, having difficult conversations, both with themselves and with those they want to be closer to. It’s also really fun, from the weirdness of this headless but not voiceless chicken to how they are able to get out of their insecurity to take a risk they have wanted to take for a long time. And the informal structure, the pauses of almost poetic design, add another personality to the work. This is an amazing story!
“Where Oken’s hearts gather“By Sarah Pinsker (Odd number 39)
What is: Framed as an entry in a kind of wiki or other site that originates in the crowd, this story develops as a conversation that took place between people who contribute to the entry on a particular folk song. One that may have originated in something strange and … true. At the very least, it’s the narrative that begins to clear up as the work progresses, moving from interpretations and posts to a full annotated analysis of the song line by line. It may not sound like it, but it’s a pretty tense and creepy job, full of mystery and possibilities, several ominous consequences for the nature of the framing technique, the outdated internet format that makes the story itself look like a seed waiting to grow and bloom in full.
Why I like it: There is something so satisfying in the way this story connects, all the pieces are placed so carefully, waiting for the reader to squeeze them into a whole picture. The story is so carefully based that for me it has this very authentic feel, as if it could be something on the internet, that I came across casually. And I think that’s part of the horror, too, that the parts here were not completely put together by the people on the board. Like so many things on the internet, they were put together in a fit of passion and interest and now simple … and although it may seem like it would be frustrating, to me it’s pretty vicious, this hanging implication, this warning that no one fully grasps, and it’s creepy and wonderfully made!
“Lass Guide to Subversive Eating Companies“By Sabrina Vervolias (Apex No. 122)
What is: It is rare to come across an interactive story in a shorter traditional SFF publication, in part because it is quite difficult to include them in a sheet format. And that’s why Apex has released it to live entirely online, and the story is framed in a pretty beautiful and compelling way as a kind of website that promises a tour of a local food scene mixed with magic, resistance, survival and love. The format is fascinating and embedded in the tour stations, about a page and other links where a story emerges, a narrative of people coming together from many different backgrounds to enrich a place that has become their entire home.
Why I like it: I do love the way it all fits in, the way the story manages to take me on a journey. I mean, that this functional map is just great, and that it covers so much, not only food, but also the different ways these women went through, the different paths to the same physical space, it was done in an amazing way. The food descriptions sound delicious but do not overshadow the culture or charm presented here, the network of different people and peoples all come together to protect what can be protected, to spread the joy and love that can be spread. The characters jump off the screen, and the piece acts as a bridge between some of the author’s other stories as well (including links where you can check them out), which is a nice way to make the setting more vivid, more real. It has such a warm heart, and so many layers, that make it a wonderful and unforgettable experience!
Looking for some X-tra recommendations? So good news, because here are some more great stories for the X-plore!
In fact, several novels have recently come out of short feature publications, including the most complex and constructed novels from around the world. “Arisudan“By Rimi B. Chatterji (Mitila Review No. 15). He imagines a world shaken by corruption and disaster, but still not hopeless. and “SunsetBy Erola Ratanker (Clarkesworld # 174) is partly a murder mystery, partly a romance, partly a dive into memory and consciousness, and is a powerful read.
I also read some recent short story collections, and from the sources I had a few favorites. “Useless eating“By Brian Cuckold (Handicapsules: Short stories of Speculative Crip Lit) is cheeky and convincing, about a group of disabled people supporting each other and refusing to cringe in the face of capable nonsense. Meanwhile “Love: Archeology“By Fabio Fernandez (Love: Archeology) is a kind of story that jumps to possibilities, linking alternative realities to the conversation and correspondence of two sisters, and the complicated ways in which they are linked.
And I guess even though most of my Xs this month tended to be fantasy, I did read a bunch of powerful science fiction stories, including “Office drone“By Nick Lipitz (Future Science Fiction Digest # 10), fun and funny and includes an office drone that literally shows the figurative drones how to really do some office work. “ka (discovery)“By Lam Ning (The Future Fire # 2021.56) is a gloomier and more serious story, which finds two people after a war who understand how to live and recover. A theme that resonates “Sunrise every 90 minutes“By Victoria Zelwin (Flash Fiction Online 03/2021), narrated from outer space, and perhaps the last human astronaut wonders what happened to Earth after a mysterious disaster, and decides how to withstand this uncertain future.