For the second straight month, I’m trying the “read a sci-fi periodical from cover-to-cover” thing. Between the October issue of Clarkesworld, the r/Fantasy Short Fiction Book Club, and my continued progress through my ARC of Africa Risen, I didn’t have many shorts that I just picked up on a whim. But I still read some absolutely fantastic shorts, as well as an excellent pair of ARCs that also leaned on the shorter side. To the shorts!
- “The Bones Beneath” (2022 short story) by Vanessa Fogg. Fogg is an author that gets recommended a lot in my short fiction social media circles, and I’ve never really understood why. Until now. This is a pretty straightforward story–there’s no real secret who the villains are, or the broad brushstrokes of what’s going on–but the storytelling is so good that it doesn’t matter. The prose beautifully evokes the oppressive world of a totalitarian state, with a child perspective that perfectly balances naivete with the conviction that something is wrong. Simple concept, outstanding execution.
- “Lost and Found” (2022 novelette) by M.L. Clark. So many of the novelettes I’ve read this year meander and lose my attention in the middle. This one very much does not, setting the hook early with a rescue mission on a mysterious planet full of arachnoid bio-computers and only building from there. The background of social upheaval feels relevant without feeling pat, and it all leads to a thoughtful ending that feels like the only way it could’ve gone, yet without being predictable. I’ve struggled to find novelettes I’ve enjoyed this year, but this one immediately tops the list and may well stay a while.
- “Fly Free” (2001 short story) by Alan Kubatiev, translated in 2022 by Alex Shvartsman. If I didn’t group stories in the order I read them (and thus the order they appear on my spreadsheet), I’d have put it right after “The Bones Beneath,” because they both do a fantastic job of bringing a totalitarian dystopia to life. But “Fly Free” is much weirder, with the dystopia ruled by birds, who displaced humanity as the dominant species in some recent, unexplained upheaval. Humans living in fear of a new ruling species also reminds me quite a bit of M. Shaw’s fantastic “Man vs Bomb,” but “Fly Free” is less outright horror and more of the creeping dread of never knowing when a wrong word will see you imprisoned or killed. At any rate, well-executed, and with the weirdness making it hard to predict the climax. Harrowing, powerful work.
- “The Projectionists” (2022 short story) by E.M. Linden. Yet another story that resonates with “The Bones Beneath,” featuring a totalitarian state and a strange supernatural reminder of the truth of the matter. I’m not sure I liked it quite as much, but with the thematic resonance, I really recommend reading them together (with “Fly Free” as well, if you’re hankering for more totalitarianism but maybe prefer something a bit weirder).
- “The Osteomancer’s Son” (2006 short story) by Greg van Eekhout. It’s a relatively straightforward heist plot with a fascinating bone-based magic system and an emotional core of strained family relationships that raises the whole far beyond the standard heist tale.
- “Do Werewolves Live in the Pacifc Northwest” (2022 short story) by Ross Showalter. It’s not hard to see where this is going, but it’s a well-executed unusual format, with the entire story taking the form of a Reddit thread. Very much worth the read for fans of experimental formats.
- “The Sugar Mill” (2022 short story, forthcoming in Africa Risen) by Tobias S. Buckell. A realtor in the Carribbean is trying to make his fortune, but the ghosts of the enslaved who died in the sugar mill he’s selling aren’t too excited about it being sold to gentrifiers. Africa Risen has a lot of stories about using supernatural means to stop social injustice, but the execution of this one stands out, delivering a big emotional punch in a small space.
- “Sweetbaby” (2022 novelette) by Thomas Ha. I just discovered Thomas Ha–a relatively new writer–last summer, but I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything I’ve read from him. This one starts out as a grotesque monster story and builds into a complex tale about a daughter finding her way out of an abusive household, while simultaneously developing her parents as fleshed-out characters whose motivations make sense, even as their actions put them clearly in the wrong.
- “Giant Fish” (2019 short story) by Chu Shifan, translated in 2022 by Stella Jiayue Zhu. A short piece that has the feel of myth, with an island transformed by the magical properties of a giant fish carcass. I’m not sure it needed the scientific gloss at the end, but I was certainly engaged throughout.
- “The Secret Strength of Things” (2022 short story) by Gregory Feeley. A fun short piece about a trickster AI pitted against an implacable guardian AI on Triton.
- “This Place is Best Shunned” (2022 novelette) by David Erik Nelson. A fantastically creepy setup opens into a cosmic horror plot that’s well put-together but didn’t necessarily resonate quite as much as the opening half of the story. But it’s still strong work, and highly recommended to fans of cosmic horror, which is personally a bit outside my wheelhouse.
- “Arbitrium” (2022 short story) by Anjali Sachdeva. A creative setup leading to a devastating finish, this imagines a world in which human ambassadors negotiate with virus representatives to prevent disease ravaging the population.
- “The Goldfish Man” (2022 short story) by Maureen McHugh. The speculative element is entertaining but not especially shocking, but the character study of a lead trying to muddle through a global pandemic while living in their car is worth the (admittedly free) price of admission.
Clarkesworld (October 2022)
I absolutely adored this month’s issue of Clarkesworld, featuring eight works of fiction and four of non-fiction. There’s a perfectly solid opening in Lavie Tidhar’s “Junk Hounds,” a treasure-hunting story that’s much more a profile of a treasure-hunter than an adventure about treasure-hunting. Following that comes what I see as the issue’s only real misstep, “Coding Van Gogh,” which offers an unconvincing dystopia that can’t abide a spark of creativity.
But after an uninspiring first quarter, the pair of novelettes that close the first half of the fiction section broke through the dam in a flood of excellent sci-fi, opening a run of five straight tales that I’ve included in the previous two sections of this roundup. I had a feeling I’d like Thomas Ha’s piece, and it hit the right combination of unsettling and thoughtful in a tale of monsters and broken families. And M.L. Clark’s “Lost and Found” sucked me in from the start and never let go, with a rescue operation on a distant planet that doesn’t go quite as expected.
Opening the second half was Alan Kubatiev’s harrowing tale of an avian totalitarian state in “Fly Free,” which precedes a pair of engaging shorter pieces (both under 3,000 words) with mythic vibes, in “Giant Fish” and “The Secret Strength of Things.” The fiction section closes with the flash fiction “Rondo for Strings and Lasergun,” which doesn’t exactly blaze new territory but tells its tale well and provides an engaging capper. I rarely find fiction under 1,500 words that really sticks with me, but I certainly enjoyed reading this one.
The four non-fiction pieces include the editor reflecting on his experience winning an unexpected but richly deserved Hugo Award, plus a discussion on whether Earth’s evolutionary history can give us useful information about what theoretical intelligent aliens might be like and a pair of interviews, one with author Marie Vibbert and one with the editors of the speculative magazine khōréō. I enjoyed all four, and particularly appreciated Vibbert’s insight on reading contemporary fiction, and how the failure to do so creates work disconnected from broader genre conversation.
All in all, the October issue was a great read, and I’m looking forward to November (which is already out, I just haven’t read it yet).
Other October Reads
- “Trette’s Bones” (2017 short story) by Grace Seybold. Sibling rivalry drives this first-person account of a land in which all adults sacrifice part of their body to be replaced with a ghostly appendage, and where the lead’s sister just can’t help one-upping everyone. The tension builds as we begin to understand more of the context behind the lead’s perspective, leading to an ending that raises as many questions as it answers.
- “The Eternal Cocktail Party of the Damned” (2022 short story) by Fonda Lee. A satire of Twitter that’s about as on-the-nose as it gets. It’s entertaining and does nail many of the toxic aspects of online culture, so it’s worth the read for the extremely online. But anyone looking for subtlety will have to look elsewhere–it’s not that kind of story.
- “C(h)oral” (2022 short story) by Hamilton Perez. A story of grief and the wonders and dangers of life on the seas.
- “The Alligator War” (1918 short story) by Horatio Quiroga, translated in 1922 by Arthur Livingston. A piece with the feel of a folk tale, about alligators trying to protect their river from human incursion. The ending felt a bit abrupt, but I enjoyed this one quite a bit.
Novels and Novellas
- Exin Ex Machina (2018 novel) by G.S. Jennsen. The first book that I finished for the second annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, with a quick hook and a fast pace, setting an intriguing mystery for an overarching series while including enough payoff to make the first book feel worthwhile on its own.
- The Hand of the Sun King (2021 novel) by J.T. Greathouse. A story about an adolescent torn between the empire of his father’s people and the rebellion of his mother’s, told in four sections that each provide their own emotional climax, building to a finish that sets up what will be one more installment in the duology.
- Strike the Zither (2022 novel) by Joan He. A retelling of the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms with skillful, engaging prose but not quite the brilliant strategizing or family drama I’d hoped for.
- Into the Riverlands (2022 novella) by Nghi Vo. The third installment in the Singing Hills Cycle (though a functional standalone–readers need no prior experience), following the leads as they collect stories in the rough-and-tumble riverlands. While there is no shortage of danger, the allure here comes mostly in reading about strange traveling companions swapping myths, histories, and tall tales, which are an absolute delight.
- Scribes’ Descent (2022 novel) by Dylan West. Another SPSFC2 entry, this a blend of young adult sci-fi and Christian fiction that hooks the reader with a clever protagonist seeking access to a top-secret research facility that may be able to account for the unexplained earthquakes plaguing the planet, but leaves much of the answers for the sequel.
- Things They Buried (2019 novel) by Amanda K. King and Michael R. Swanson. A third SPSFC2 book, blending sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, featuring a secondary world populated entirely by non-human races, and a pair of leads who had been trafficked as children who must excavate both the physical and psychological horrors to ensure no other child suffers the same fate.
Other October Reads
- Sweep of Stars (2022 novel) by Maurice Broaddus. The opening to an epic sci-fi trilogy featuring a community of African settlers in space doing their best to make a better society, but having to root out dangers both inside and outside the community. Full review to come.
- Mapping the Interior (2017 novella) by Stephen Graham Jones. Straddling the line between horror and magical realism, a short novel of a child seeing his long-dead father return as a ghost. Well-told, though one that has me feeling that I’m missing half the symbolism. Full review to come.
- Neom (2022 novel) by Lavie Tidhar. A short novel with the feel of future myth, featuring a handful of perspectives on the margins of a future Earth dramatically changed by robot wars and colonists leaving for Mars and beyond. A pleasure to read. Full review to come shortly.
I’ve been reading (as you can see by the three reviews posted), and so have my teammates. We’re still finishing up our first pass through the slush pile, but expect to see eliminations and quarterfinalists announced in November.