I’ve been blogging for nearly two years now, but I’m still changing up how I handle short fiction reviews, given that I’ll sometimes read individual stories as they catch my eye and sometimes read anthologies straight through. This month, I’ve decided to experiment with reading some web magazines straight through, while leaving space for picking and choosing stories from elsewhere. And I’ve changed the format accordingly. I’ll still collect my favorites in the favorites section, but others will be grouped by magazine or anthology, with the remainder of stories I find worth mentioning in the usual “other reads” section. And for anthologies that I don’t finish by the end of the month, I’ll shout out my favorites here before reviewing the remainder of the anthology later. We’ll see how this works. To the stories!
- Border Run (2022 short story) by Octavia Cade. One of those stories that’s simultaneously slice-of-life and emotionally hard-hitting, with beautifully terrifying mermaids and one small country trying to build back the ecosystem in a sterile and overfished ocean. A tough one, but excellent, with an unusual, yet fascinating take on what would be a clear dystopia in many other works, featuring lots of hard questions and no easy answers.
- A Dream of Electric Mothers (2022 novelette, forthcoming in Africa Risen) by Wole Talabi. An engaging piece about a people that preserves the wisdom of their ancestors in a single algomeration of the minds of the dead, consulting them on difficult political problems. Not one to spoonfeed the reader, but every piece is in place. Only gets better upon reflection. [note: I have seen others call this a novelette, but the anthology doesn’t include word counts, and my best guess is that it’s within 500 words of the novelette/short story border, one way or the other. But I’ll call it a novelette until proven otherwise.]
- The Summer Castle (2022 short story) by Ray Nayler. A meditative, creepy short about war and memory that doesn’t completely come together but also doesn’t really feel like it’s supposed to. An excellent read, as long as you’re not expecting an ending that resolves every question.
- Food for the Soul (2022 short story, in FIYAH, issue #23) by Elnora Gunter. A young adult heroine makes a last-ditch effort to keep her family restaurant afloat in a spice-free dystopia. It’s impossible to miss hints of an impending triumph of traditional cooking, which makes for an ending that isn’t especially surprising, but it’s written well enough to make it a pleasure to read regardless.
- To Embody a Wildfire Starting (2022 novelette) by Iona Datt Sharma. An excellent, heartfelt story about the aftermath of war, with a lead character who no longer fits comfortably in his birth home and a society preoccupied by the task of finding and punishing those who aided the enemy.
- IRL (2022 short story, forthcoming in Africa Risen) by Steven Barnes. A virtual reality story in which real-world justice has been farmed out to gamers. I’m not sure I totally bought the dystopian premise, but it’s engaging from start to finish and has an excellent emotional heart. Very much worth the read.
- Timekeeper’s Symphony (2022 short story) by Ken Liu. Written more like a fictional essay than a cohesive story, but with plenty of interesting worldbuilding and reflection on time and humanity.
- A Knight in Tunisia (2022 novelette, forthcoming in Africa Risen) by Alex Jennings. At heart, it’s a superhero story–not a subgenre I typically enjoy–but the disorienting narrative draws the reader into the mind of a traumatized lead struggling to adapt to the ordinary world.
Clarkesworld (September 2022)
Clarkesworld is quickly becoming one of my favorite magazines, which made it the natural choice as I decided to start reading magazines in full. They’re not all winners, but they’re all interesting. The standout in September was Octavia Cade’s “Border Run,” which I mentioned among my favorites–it’s gripping, unsettling, and morally complex. I also mentioned Ken Liu’s “Timekeeper’s Symphony,” which provides a lot of reflection on time and humanity without a lot of plot. I expect fans of Liu’s “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” to enjoy this one too.
And this issue has quite a bit of depth as well. Amal Singh’s “Sub-Son” and Fiona Moore’s “The Slow Deaths of Automobiles” use sci-fi premises (personality downloads and sentient vehicles, respectively) to explore tension in the relationships of close family and friends. I particularly appreciated the quiet poignancy of the Moore piece. Another quiet, poignant offering was James Sallis’ “Rivers Bend,” which explores the mind of an aspiring author. There aren’t many surprises in the plot, but it’s a short piece, bordering on flash fiction, and it’s reflective and well-told.
The longest story in the issue, the novella-length “Live Update” by Lettie Prell, introduces some absolutely fascinating toxic family dynamics into a story about an experimental technology designed to provide the dying with eternal life within virtual reality. Had the interpersonal aspects been the central theme, this might’ve become one of my favorite novellas of the year. Ultimately, it moved more in the direction of solving technological problems, and while it came together nicely and was worth the read, the aspects I found most interesting ended up being more of the B plot than the star of the show.
If there’s a weak point, it’s Sarah Pauling’s “Shining Bursa and the Listening Post.” But that story was still interesting, even as it was difficult to get a handle on some of the details of a story spanning centuries of galactic conquest. It didn’t totally hit for me, but it still explored some interesting themes–it’s a 3.5-star miss, not a 2-star miss. And while I’m here for the fiction, there are four quality non-fiction pieces, from interviews, to reflections on short fiction publishing, to a fabulous dive into Ukrainian SFF.
All of these are free online, so you don’t have to just read them straight through. But if you want to read an entire sci-fi magazine, this one has a lot of good and not much bad.
FIYAH (Issue #23: Food & Cuisine)
This issue is comfort food in both form and content, and that’s both strength and weakness. On the positive side, every single piece is a pleasure to read, with Elnora Gunter’s “Food for the Soul” standing out in particular. On the negative side, there’s not a lot that’s surprising, which makes for a few entertaining reads that don’t necessarily stick with you a week after reading. The positive and negative aspects probably come out most strongly in the extended piece, “Just Desserts” by A.M. Barrie, which endows renowned, enslaved chef Hercules Posey with literal magic in the kitchen. The writing is excellent, and it makes for a story that’s always going to be good. But it’s a piece that hints at greatness and just doesn’t have enough uncertainty to sustain that level for the novelette length, leaving it at merely good.
I could describe the others much the same. Ashaye Brown’s “Kingston Gourmet” is an excellent read that feels like comfort food in literary form, and Lina Munroe’s “The Usual Way” delivers a magical tale of trying and trying until you finally get it right. For fans of speculative fiction about food, this is bound to be a winner, even if it may not be a jaw-dropper.
Other September Reads
- Informed Consent Logs from the Soul Swap Clinic (2022 short story) by Sarah Pauling. An epistolary short, bordering on flash fiction, officially about body-swapping but the real story being one about women wrestling with gender expectations.
- Coma Kings (2014 short story) by Jessica Barber. A story about a pair of sisters among the absolute best at a VR game, and troubled relationships between each other and with their mother as a result.
- The Cure for Loneliness (2022 short story) by M. Shaw. Very explicitly a pandemic story, and a weird one, leading with the narrator turning into a plant and building from there. It’s always intriguing, but given the subject matter, it feels like it should come off a little more unsettling than it actually does.
- All That Burns Unseen (2022 short story) by Premee Mohamed. A climate story with wildfires raging across Canada. Like most such stories, it’s mostly about the way the world has deteriorated, but there’s a solid human story at the center.
- The Dreaded Name (2022 short story) by Vajra Chandrasekera. I’d never read a Chadrasekera story that wasn’t quite a bit on the weird side, and I still haven’t. But they’re all interesting. This one is a list of annotations on a viral manifesto asserting the world to be a simulation. I’m not quite sure what to take away from it, but I enjoyed the ride.
- Singing the Ancient out of the Dark (2022 short story) by R.J. Theodore and Maurice Broaddus. A daring explorer braves a strictly quarantined planet to find out why the society seems to be dying. The answers are surprising, and might overturn her life as she knows it.
- The Lending Library of Final Lines (2022 short story) by Octavia Cade. While the title should’ve tipped me off, I didn’t realize this was going to be a suicide story. As such, it’s dark, and not especially satisfying at the end, but certainly well-written.
- What Una Loves (2022 short story) by Rich Larson. I can’t leave it off a list of notable stories I read this month, because the dystopia is powerful, but there’s quite a bit more body horror that I’m comfortable reading. But it’s a short piece that’s very worth the read for those who have a little more tolerance for the grotesque.
Novels and Novellas
- Lonely Castle in the Mirror (2017 novel) by Mizuki Tsujimura, translated by Philip Gabriel, to be released in the United States October 18, 2022. A slow-paced young adult novel, structured as a school novel, only without actual school attendance, that provides a powerful look into adolescent trauma. Excellent work, highly recommended.
- The Revenge of Bridget Cleary (2022 novel) by Mathilda Zeller. Another young adult novel, with more of the fast paced that I expect from books for that audience, that takes a gruesome historical murder as the starting point for a novel about redemption, revenge, and the Fae.
- Sea of Tranquility (2022 novel) by Emily St. John Mandel. A short, literary novel with sci-fi elements building as it progresses. It follows four characters across different timelines, and every section is compelling on its own, although the way it pulls together struck me as a little too neat.
- The Mountain in the Sea (2022 novel) by Ray Nayler. This literary-leaning philosophical sci-fi debut has immediately ascended a short list for my favorite books of the year, with plenty of discussion of other minds–both in the context of AI and of cepholopods that appear to have developed sentience–and a fascinating first-contact plot underneath it all. Fantastic stuff, highly recommended to fans of philosophical science fiction.
- Exin Ex Machina (2018 novel) by G.S. Jennsen. The clubhouse leader for my favorite book encountered during my first pass through my team’s SPSFC2 slush pile, it’s an action-packed novel featuring an android race and a terrible secret that those in power would stop at nothing to protect.
Other September Reads
- Scribes’ Descent (2022 novel) by Dylan West. A hybrid between young adult sci-fi and Christian fiction, featuring a brilliant teen scientist, a science-worshiping government, and a top-secret research facility on the site of a historical atrocity against the indigenous people. Full review to come.
- Strike the Zither (2022 novel) by Joan He. A young adult fantasy novel inspired by the Chinese classic Three Kingdoms, featuring a brilliant teen strategist trying to help a landless faction overcome the might of the Empire’s top warlordess. Full review to come.
I didn’t post any SPSFC updates in September, but my teammates and I have been steadily working through our slush pile, in hopes of announcing quarterfinalists in early November. I’m also still working through Africa Risen, so look for a full review around the end of October, though you’ll note a few standouts appeared already in this round-up. Finally, I posted a reflection on habit-formation and working toward a more diverse reading list.