In a short fiction landscape with a staggering number of options for genre fans, it can be hard to beat back shiny object syndrome and consistently support a particular publication. But jumping around wildly leaves readers at the mercy of catchy titles and social media marketing, and it leaves the publications themselves undersupported. So in 2023, I’m going to try out being a regular with a few sci-fi/fantasy publications, starting off with two that I enjoyed immensely last year and a third with a reputation as a titan in the field. This is the first in what I hope to be a monthly series of magazine reviews.
I’ll start with GigaNotoSaurus, which publishes one longish story every month and appeared twice on my favorites lists in 2022. They open 2023 with the novelette “Old Seeds” by Owen Leddy, which sees both the reader and the narrator initially disoriented. When the lead wakes in orbit of a once-distant planet after more than a century of stasis, it takes a little while for xem to find xer footing and realize just what the problem is. But once the lead begins to understand the nature of the dispute between terraforming AIs that xe has been woken to resolve, it opens up an intriguing puzzle that in turn gives birth to a heart-wrenching reflection on meaning, beauty, and what gets squeezed out in the pursuit of efficiency. It’s only January, but this is an outstanding novelette that I fully expect to be among my favorites at the end of the year.
Clarkesworld has been bringing the hits pretty consistently since I started reading regularly last year (and doubtless before that), but this month’s issue—consisting of three short stories and three novelettes—didn’t quite click the way so many others have. That said, there were still a couple real winners, and some of the ones that didn’t hit for me may well work wonderfully for others.
All three short stories were trying something interesting, but with varying degrees of success. My favorite was Natasha King’s “Sharp Undoing,” which tells of a hivemind surviving a post-apocalyptic hellscape via a fortunate bug allowing them to defend against mind-stealing technology by transferring their entire consciousness and assimilating the prospective thief. It’s an exciting plot, but underneath is a story of identity, family, and purpose in a world that has devolved into a chaotic free-for-all. Less of a hit for me personally was D.A. Xiaolin Spires’ beautifully weird tale of pregnancy in a dystopian society that controls seemingly every aspect of a person’s life. It’s not a story for readers who want to understand every detail—or even the mechanisms behind major plot developments—but it’s well worth a read for those who like their sci-fi on the personal and weird side. Also personal and weird is Felix Rose Kawitzky’s “Pearl,” a tale about transformation on a remote black hole research lab. Though not an especially long piece, I felt it got too bogged down in the research descriptions to really bring the story to life.
On the whole, I had a better experience with the novelettes, though I still found them somewhat of a mixed bag. For me, the clear headliner was “Anais Gets a Turn” by R.T. Ester, catching my attention immediately with the opening line “The world-organism is awake and has spent the last decade playing round after round of tic-tac-toe with itself.” The story itself is largely a single operation—interrupt the course of events so that the world can beat itself at tic-tac-toe—but the audacity of the central premise had me grinning and engaged the whole way. A smooth prose style and a lot of time dedicated to the lead’s emotional life and her past responses to high-stress situations certainly helped as well, rounding this into an all-around excellent piece.
Gregory Feeley’s “The Fortunate Isles,” on the other hand, didn’t totally get off the ground for me, with an “AI telling the reader a story reconstructed from personal logs and public data sources” framing device setting up a story of multiple groups of intelligent beings building societies in Neptune’s orbit. There was a lot to unpack, but it ran too long to really hold my attention without a compelling central thread. The final novelette of the January issue, Cao Baiyu’s “Zhuangzi’s Dream” (translated by Stella Jiayue Zhu) was even more episodic, offering a mythic tale of the dreams of an ancient seer. It was a bit of a meandering piece, but I really appreciated how the ending pulled so many disparate and dreamlike elements together.
As always, this issue of Clarkesworld closed with four non-fiction pieces—one from the editor, one speculative-adjacent science deep-dive, and two interviews. Being January, the editorial was a year-in-review, but it aggregated some interesting stats. For instance, of their 86 works of fiction published in 2022, nine were professional debuts, and 11 were works in translation. I found the dive into molecular chemistry a little too deep to hold my interest, and I hadn’t read either interview subject—Ada Hoffman or Paul McAuley—but I enjoyed Hoffman’s reflections on autistic burnout and the value of characters pausing to take mental stock of the situation rather than jumping from action sequence to action sequence.
My first month subscribing to one of the classic genre magazines, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, was a bit of a disappointment, with far too much of the fiction—at least for my taste—tied into existing stories. But that’s not to say there wasn’t still good to be found.
Three pieces—Robert Reed’s novella “Best, Last, Only,” David D. Levine’s novelette “The Bucket Shop Job,” and Maurice Broaddus’ short story “The Past is a Dream (The Launch of a Blacktopia)”—serve as prequels to the authors’ existing series. “The Past is a Dream” uses the stylings of a documentary to give backstory to the Astra Black series (the only one of the three I’d previously read), while “The Bucket Shop Job” offers an entertaining heist story. Both have something to offer on their own merits, but both have the feel of stories written for existing fans as opposed to for bringing in new converts. “Best, Last, Only,” on the other hand, presents centuries of history with little enough central narrative that I can’t see what it offers to any but the initiated.
Four other pieces take existing mythologies as their jumping off points, but only Madalina Daleziou’s “To Give Moon Milk to a Lover” and Morgan L. Ventura’s flash fiction “Oracle” have the beauty to stand on their own. C.B. Channell’s “Persephone’s Children” explores figures from Greek mythology in a way that impacts mostly readers familiar with their standard presentation, and Prashanth Srivatsa’s novelette “Floating on the Stream that Brings from the Fount” is a space opera that tries to establish too big a cast in a short time and whose explicit connections to the Mahabharata don’t hit the same way for those not steeped in the original epic.
Of the ten works of fiction in January/February’s F&SF, that leaves three without obvious connections to existing mythologies or the author’s previous works. The first two deal explicitly with death and the afterlife. Stefan Slater’s “Cowboy Ghost Dads Always Break Your Heart” tells of a half-ghost growing up feeling disconnected from the world of the living, but unable to find a connection to the world of ghosts either. And Tegan Moore’s novelette “A Creation of Birds” explores regret through a mystery packed with the dreamlike illogic of a bird-heavy afterlife. Both stories have their beauty, but neither totally came together in a way that resonated for me.
However, there was one that knocked me flat: “Off the Map” by Dane Kuttler. It’s the heart-wrenching story of a single mother trying to support three children on her own, with an intrusive technostate constantly looking over her shoulder and judging her fitness. When an opportunity arises to move her family to a community for families in crisis that would support her financially for a full year, she jumps even knowing it sounds too good to be true. And when the other shoe inevitably drops, the devastating portrait of unfeeling corporate greed is shot through with threads of resilience and true community. This is a short piece that leaves much of the background unexplained, but what it delivers has the power to be worth the whole price of admission.
Though this is my first full issue of F&SF, what I’ve read of Sheree Thomas’ editorial work promised I’d be stepping outside my comfort zone in a way that wouldn’t always resonate but would be worth my while regardless. In this issue, I saw some of both, with a few beautiful pieces that were well worth my time even without totally clicking and then one that pulled it all together and hit big. That said, while I know that genre magazines have a long history of publishing stories written in existing universes, I can only hope that future issues have more standalone work and fewer tie-ins.