In January, I started a new series, which I hope to continue all year, in which I read and review sci-fi/fantasy magazines. I’ve settled on three publications to follow this year: my two favorites from 2022 and a third that has been a titan of the genre for decades. And after a solid-but-unexceptional April, May was my best month yet, with five pieces crowding my favorites list and plenty of others that were plenty rewarding.
I enjoyed almost all of what I read in April’s issue of Clarkesworld, but there wasn’t any one story that really struck me as hitting another level. That changed definitively with the opening piece in May’s issue: “Better Living Through Algorithms” by Naomi Kritzer. As the title suggests, it’s an “AI making people’s lives better” tale in the mold of Kritzer’s award-winning “Cat Pictures Please.” But whereas I—admittedly reading five years after it came out—found the latter a tad dated, I thought “Better Living Through Algorithms” was excellent. It shines an honest light on common struggles in contemporary life, but presents them in such a way that they feel surmountable. There’s also a real skepticism about the origin of the algorithm in question that resonates with changing societal attitudes since 2015, preventing the story from coming off as naive but without robbing its optimistic tone. This one was a real delight, and given past reception to Kritzer’s work, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t resonate with a whole lot of people.
Harry Turtledove’s “Through the Roof of the World” is a fun experiment with perspective, told almost entirely from the perspective of sentient mollusk-like creatures trying to determine the origins of the disturbance above them. It was no real surprise when the answer was revealed, but the execution made it a fun read regardless, with the picture becoming clearer piece-by-piece up to the final conclusion.
The eye-catcher in this month’s table of contents is undoubtedly Suzanne Palmer’s novella-length “Beyond the Botnet,” featuring the return of Bot 9 and its compatriots from the Hugo-winning novelettes “The Secret Life of Bots” and “Bots of the Lost Ark.” I hadn’t been quite as wowed by the prior stories as the general sci-fi reading public, so I suppose it will come as no surprise that “Beyond the Botnet” wasn’t my personal highlight of the month. That said, it’s easy to see the appeal—Bot 9 is an incredibly endearing lead, and there were no barriers to an easy immersion. The novella length allows for an extended setup that shows off the absolute best of the bot characters, but the action-packed ending ran a little long for my tastes. I still enjoyed my time with the story, but the character-to-action ratio leans a bit more to action than I personally prefer.
Following the novella are five more short stories, four of them under 3,000 words. And while I sometimes struggle to connect at the lower end of the short story length category, I was very impressed by Rich Larson’s “LOL, Said the Scorpion.” It’s a story about tourism in impoverished communities that literalizes the metaphor of the invisibility of the local population, to dramatic effect. I’ve only read a few of Larson’s works, and I find he’s willing to go darker than I usually prefer, but here it absolutely works. And while I didn’t recognize the meme title in advance, it sure fits.
Parker Ragland’s “Sensation and Sensibility” offers a bit of sci-fi slice-of-life, with a side of robot philosophy, telling simply of a pair of drones having tea and discussing the nature of sensation—both those they experience and the ones barred by their construction. It’s followed by Megan Chee’s “The Giants Among Us,” which gives brief and intriguing accounts of societies living on the backs of literal giants, tied together by a research effort to try to stop a long and bitter war.
The issue closes with Andy Dudak’s translation of An Hao’s “Action at a Distance” and with Jordan Chase-Young’s “The Fall.” The former features an encounter with a planet that warps perception in such a way that explorers inevitably crash and die before landing. It’s hard to describe entirely alien forms of perception, but the story makes a solid attempt, with enough plot to provide a driving motivation. Chase-Young’s piece is nearly as disorienting, a sci-fi/horror tale that sees the lead exploring the forested remnants of a dead Moon civilization. It’s an evocative narrative, laced with the uncanny and ambiguous.
This month’s letter from the editor takes a break from examining the dual crises of ChatGPT and Amazon’s rolling magazine subscriptions into Kindle Unlimited, instead sharing details of a successful call for Spanish-language submissions. This removes the burden on authors to commission their own translations, as the eight stories accepted will be translated into English by Clarkesworld. It’s another excellent step for a magazine with a deep commitment to inclusion of international sci-fi.
The essay provides a fascinating take on sci-fi and horror—so often opposite in the former’s rewards and the latter’s punishments for exploration and heroism—and how they can come together in fantastic ways. This month’s author interviews were with Premee Mohamed and Megan O’Keefe. I’ve read little of either, but I certainly came away looking for more opportunities to read Mohamed.
One of the downsides of publishing just one story a month is that a publication can deliver fairly consistent excellence and still have me feeling like it’s been ages since I was really wowed. Fortunately, May’s GigaNotoSaurus story broke the small-but-long drought of three consecutive issues without hitting my favorites list, with the long short story “Any Percent” by Andrew Dana Hudson. Part litRPG, part union story, it tells of Luckless, a warehouse worker fleeing the hardship and tedium of real life by trying to speedrun his way to becoming the richest person in the world in a popular simulation game.
It opens with an engaging, albeit low-stakes account of the virtual exploration that earned him niche recognition as the discoverer of several time-shaving skips. But as life gets harder, his desire for virtual accomplishment only increases, leading down a predictable spiral in which his virtual persona becomes everything he hates in real life. It’s a really fascinating story, with enough of a dive into game mechanics to help the reader understand the strategy behind the main character’s pursuit, while keeping a firm enough foot in the real world to maintain the feel of a truly character-driven piece, with thematic weight but without eschewing that vital glimmer of hope.
Fantasy & Science Fiction
The May/June issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was heavy on the shorter pieces, with just two novelettes compared to eight short stories and four flash fictions, in addition to the usual poetry and reviews. And perhaps unsurprisingly, given the breakdown, it was the short stories where I found my favorites.
The issue opens with an epistolary tale of pyramid exploration, Fawaz Al-Matrouk’s “On the Mysterious Events at Rosetta.” If you’re at all familiar with the subgenre, this story probably goes as you’d expect, but it’s an entertaining read nonetheless. It’s followed by one of the issue’s two novelettes: “The Dire Delusion” by Matthew Hughes. “The Dire Delusion” is a sort of magical whodunnit, with thieves waking up with their loot gone and no memory of anyone who might’ve taken it. As with many stories of this sort, I find that the list of suspects isn’t fleshed out well enough to be especially satisfying as a mystery, but Hughes introduces an entertaining world and keeps the story moving well enough to maintain the reader’s interest.
Next comes a pair of short stories about family in non-Western cultures, Kiran Kaur Saini’s “Amrit” and Lark Morgan Lu’s “In Time, All Foxes Grieve Westward.” The former involves an aging man receiving an AI in-home assistant, forcing him to confront both his deteriorating mind and body and his fraught relationship with his adult son. It’s another story that’s not especially hard to predict, but the excellent storytelling and character work make it well worth the read regardless. If you enjoy grumpy old men, this one is a gem. The latter features a fox who has immigrated to America and taken the form of a human, coming home to visit his dying mother and dealing with the fallout of the clash between his life and her expectations. I found it a little more difficult to immerse here than in “Amrit,” but I could certainly see this story hitting hard for those with more firsthand experience with the theme.
Smack in the middle of the issue were my two favorite stories from this edition of F&SF. “A Conjure-Horse in San Ouvido” by Ferdison Cayetano is a wonderful blend of mythologies and war stories, with a Black soldier leaving his island off the Carolinas to fight in the Philippines, where he not only finds some familiar magic, but that he may have more in common with the local population than with the American soldiers serving alongside him. It’s a story that leans into the mystical while still having some hard-hitting emotional passages and satisfying plot progression.
But for the third straight issue, my absolute favorite Fantasy & Science Fiction story was a near future sci-fi. Do I have a niche? Maybe. In the May/June issue, that honor went to “Highway Requiem” by T.R. Napper. Somewhat amusingly, “Highway Requiem” marked the third story I’d read in just the last couple months that focused on the post-automation trucking industry. But I loved Ray Nayler’s “The Empty,” and I loved this one, so I guess I’ll roll with the trucks as long as they’re working. Napper’s piece is neither neat nor happy, but it’s a deeply personal piece that explores so many nuances of both the social benefits and harms that come out of the transformation of transportation, while still managing to be the most emotionally affecting story I read all month. The worldbuilding is excellent, and the lead character so gripping that it’s easy to feel his yearning and anxieties. Excellent work.
“The Lucky Star” by Dr. Bunny McFadden provides a more lighthearted turn, with a short, fun piece about a queer bar on Titan. It is in turn followed by a more serious piece, Zig Zag Claybourne’s “For the Benefit of Mr. Khite,” featuring a being meant to serve as an intermediary between humans and various other artificial Intelligences. Very much a “learning to be human” story, it explores everything from physical sensation to a search for meaning in life.
I have so consistently struggled to engage with flash fiction that I wonder whether I should just note the existence of the flash pieces and move on, just like with the poetry and review sections. Maybe next time. For now, I’ll be brief with the issue’s four flash fictions: “Time and Art” by Barbara Krasnoff, “I Paint the Light With My Mother’s Bones” by K.J. Aspey, “We Are Happy to Serve You” by Margaret Dunlap, and “Titan Retreat” by Ria Rees. I probably resonated most with “Time and Art,” the longest of the four and also the most straightforward story, a parable-like tale about time and what we make of it. “I Paint the Light With My Mother’s Bones” is far and away the richest in metaphor and lyricism, with a girl in a transforming basement fighting off the dark, but by the same token, it was the hardest to grasp on the initial read. “We Are Happy to Serve You” is the shortest of the bunch, a small piece about automated food kiosks with a punchy ending. And “Titan Retreat” is a sometimes-poignant piece of character backstory that feels a bit incomplete on its own.
After the poetry and flash fiction, the issue returns to longer works for two final pieces. “Knotty Girl” by Melissa A. Watkins is a Black retelling of Rapunzel that leans into the unsettling elements. And the issue’s second novelette, “A Truth So Loyal and Vicious” by Fatima Taqvi, serves as an excellent capstone, with a folkloric story of prophecies and curses, the bond of sisterhood and a creature that trades magic for truth. Many of the themes are familiar, but they’re beautifully tied together.
- “A Conjure-Horse in San Ouvido” by Ferdison Cayetano (short story, F&SF)
- “Any Percent” by Andrew Dana Hudson (short story, GigaNotoSaurus)
- “Better Living Through Algorithms” by Naomi Kritzer (short story, Clarkesworld)
- “LOL, Said the Scorpion” by Rich Larson (short story, Clarkesworld)
- “Highway Requiem” by T.R. Napper (short story, F&SF)