As I open the second half of my year as a regular with Clarkesworld, GigaNotoSaurus, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I can say pretty confidently that this won’t be my last year with Clarkesworld. Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been a fair bit of good from the other two, including some this month. So let’s hop right into what I liked and why I’m so confident I’m sticking with. . .
Another month, another really good issue of Clarkesworld. It opens with “Cheaper to Replace” by Marie Vibbert, about a research assistant who can’t bear to part with an older model bot that’s becoming, as the title suggests, too expensive to bother fixing. The bot is endearing, and the story does a nice job presenting nostalgic attachments without an overly rosy lens—such attachments can be sweet, but there are downsides.
Next is a tale of a bounty hunter tracking feral autonomous vehicles through the desert in “Death and Redemption, Somewhere Near Tuba City” by Lou J. Berger. Unfortunately, it’s the one story in this month’s issue that I didn’t feel fully came together. The action scenes are executed skillfully enough, but the moral complications of the job are clear so early in the piece that the lead’s evolving perspective feels confusingly late more than it feels a powerful transformation.
“Estivation Troubles” by Bo Balder tells of an interracial couple that met on a spaceship returning to their home planet and facing hard questions about their life together. Not necessarily groundbreaking, but a good read. It’s followed by the issue’s sole novelette, “Clio’s Scroll” by Brenda W. Clough, about an alien oracle traveling medieval Italy with Dante (yes, that one), seeking a place with the heat it needs to survive and protection from potentially hostile locals. Again, perhaps not groundbreaking, but plenty entertaining.
This month, my favorite stories all came in the back half of the issue. “Tigers for Sale” tells of an AI Station that controls the only gateway into another universe. The tale focuses on the idiosyncratic questions that determine whether or not it will open the gateway, all while it fights off nightmares and worries over memory gaps. An excellent read that comes together for an intense finish. [And this is where I remind the reader that the boundary line between “really liked it” and “wrote it down on my favorites list” can be a blurry one influenced by a host of factors apart from the individual quality of a piece. This one was close to the line.]
A bit quieter, but no less fascinating, is “Timelock” by Davian Aw. Told in second-person to one of the few natives left on a notorious party moon, it features a lead frequently caught on the fringes of a neighbor’s time-stopping parties. A reflective story that is always poignant and sometimes tragic, it’s a great read for fans of quieter sci-fi who don’t mind trying to wrap their heads around layers and layers of frozen time.
The biggest surprise of the issue for me was “What Remains, the Echoes of Flute Song” by Alexandra Seidel. A post-human who communicates only in music wanders a post-apocalyptic landscape and happens upon an unmodified human waking from stasis. Even for me, it’s not especially plotty, and it’s not like post-apocalyptic encounters haven’t been done before. And yet, the story pulled me in until I was utterly engrossed in the characters, their attempts to communicate, and their dual separations from any who may have been their fellows. It may not be plot-driven, but it’s beautiful and emotional. Probably my favorite in the July issue.
Finally, “The Orchard of Tomorrow” by Kelsea Yu is part a story about stories and part about repairing a friendship marred by one friend taking a comfortable job working for the oligarchs who hoarded food while others starved. There were moments that felt a bit on-the-nose, but on the whole, this was yet another quality story.
The usual science essay in the non-fiction section is replaced by a deep dive into a work of proto-science fiction, The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish. It’s followed by the always excellent interview section, this time with Yukimi Ogawa and Aimee Ogden, and a short editorial in which Clarke reflects on how short fiction publishing always seems on the verge of doomsday, paired with a brief update on the current crisis.
After a couple months of short stories, GigaNotoSaurus opened July with its second novella-length work of the year, “Canyon Masks” by Reed Mingault. The novella length can sometimes feel like either an overgrown novelette or a chopped-down novel, but this one felt perfectly sized for the story being told, a classic fantasy tale in which a pair of divine operatives find themselves working at cross-purposes and decide to team up and accomplish both their ends.
The backstory is enough to set the stage, but not enough to bog down a streamlined tale about magical impersonation of an infamous mercenary lord with the purpose of radically shifting the balance of power in a harsh, desert landscape. Fans of magic and intrigue will undoubtedly find plenty to love.
Fantasy & Science Fiction
In my few months of regularly reading The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I’ve noticed that its stories often seem comfortable with ambiguous—or even outright confusing—endings, and that trend continues in a big way in the July/August issue. There are a few straightforward stories, but even those offer a little hint of mystery at the end, just to keep the reader a bit off balance. If you’re a fan of not having everything tied up in neat bows, this is an issue to check out.
It starts with “Approved Methods of Love Divination in the First-Rate City of Dushagorod” by Kristina Ten. What starts as a tongue-in-cheek catalog of schoolyard fortune-telling methods that have become the official matchmaking apparatus of the titular first-rate city turns into something darker as more and more pieces of the city’s history are revealed. The ending doesn’t say straight out where the lead’s investigations of unapproved divination lead her, but we can guess.
This is followed immediately by a weird first contact story, “Vanishing Point” by RJ Taylor, in which a pair of researchers happen upon a planet with one enormous creature that defies both their eyes and their instruments. It’s hard to ever know quite what’s happening, but I can’t say it isn’t a fun way to be confused.
The next two pieces are a little more straightforward, though the issue’s line novelette—“The Very Nasty Aquarium” by Peter S. Beagle—does bring in a pinch of ambiguity at the end of its tale of a retired schoolteacher fighting a cursed pirate figurine at the bottom of her aquarium. If that description caught your eye, you’ll probably have a good time with this one. Next, “The Pet of Olodumare” by Joshua Uchenna Omenga and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki throws the focus back toward foundational mythologies, with a tale that hits both the creation of humanity and the origin story of a sea goddess.
As always, there are a few pieces of flash fiction in this issue of F&SF, but just one issue after I openly wondered whether I should stop reviewing flash (it never works for me), I found among them one of my favorite stories of the month. “Serenity Prayer” by Faith Merino offers a short piece in the mold of “The Lottery,” complete with lush descriptions and a different enough angle of approach that it still feels fresh and powerful. “We Go on Faith Alone” by K.S. Walker and “Gather Me a Treasure” by Jordan Chase-Young round out the opening flash section with a piece on homing and one in the “The Gifts of the Magi” vein.
A couple more flash pieces are sprinkled later in the issue, including the single-page high fantasy “A Time to Sing” by Eddie Moore, along with the extremely self-aware “What to Do When a Protagonist Visits Your Generic Village” by Dan Peacock. The former is reasonably effective in a short space, but the latter doesn’t really distinguish itself in the world of self-aware parody.
Celeste Rita Baker’s “Pedastles, Proclivities, and Perpetuities” provides an even more over-the-top parody, with a take on rich, white society that starts with the absurd and only escalates from there. There was enough grounding to see the real-life targets of the piece, but I found it a bit too ridiculous to really amuse.
Circling back to the middle of the issue, we find two more enjoyable short stories that lean into the ambiguity: “Little Bird” by Jill McMillan and “NPC (Or Eight Haxploits to Maximize Your Endgame Farming: A Player’s Guide)” by DeVaun Sanders. The former features a woman living alone following the death of her father, with a series of uncanny events building a sense of unease that comes together for an intense finish. The latter stars a middle school kid playing an augmented reality game that couples secrecy with an bizarrely long reach into the real world. It covers everything from schoolyard fights to gun violence and is always a fascinating read, even if it’s not always clear how to understand the relationship between game and reality.
The issue’s extended centerpiece is a novella by Aimee Ogden, “A Half-Remembered World.” It features a society built on the back of a giant god-crab roaming the seas, and dealing with the fallout of their god’s impending death. It’s a really interesting world, and if some of the political machinations aren’t especially surprising, they’re written well enough to keep the reader engaged for the story’s full length.
The second of my favorite pieces in the issue returns to a roughly present-day, real-world setting in “A Meal for Frederick” by Nick Thomas. It won’t surprise regular readers that I found myself invested in yet another small-scale, emotionally heavy piece with understated SFF elements, but Thomas’ piece was a winner. It starts with an ambiguously magical feeding of a plastic-bag-and-masking-tape homemade dragon, before finding its center as a story of hope and family amid bouts of ill-health, big and small. It’s beautiful and it’s touching—just the sort of story to draw me in.
It’s followed by “The Day of the Sea” by Jennifer Hudak, about what happens when the sea—personified as a tired old woman—comes to visit an unprepared village. It’s something of a roller coaster, with plenty to unpack thematically and a sense of uncertainty that remains to the very end, but in a way that’s more contemplative than thrilling. An excellent read for fans of quietly beautiful stories with a lot to say.
The issue’s final short story is another compact piece that borders on flash, “The Giant’s Dream” by Beth Goder. It’s the second piece this month about societies built on the literal bodies of giants, but this one is ten times shorter than Ogden’s novella and has an accordingly more personal focus—undoubtedly a good read to end on!
As usual, this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction also features poetry and reviews, but the non-fiction piece that most stood out to me was Arley Sorg’s “By the Numbers,” in which he surveys a selection of leading genre magazines to see how often they actually published new authors. The results were staggering, with Clarkesworld publishing more new authors than the other five magazines combined. The piece goes into more detail defining terms and methodology, but it only increased my respect for a publication that has already been one of my favorites. I may change up my regular magazines next year, but I’m pretty sure Clarkesworld is staying in the rotation.