A welcome quieter month—with only two of my regular magazines releasing new issues—allowed me to get to an ARC of an exciting new short fiction anthology, leading yet again to a magazine round-up coming at the very end of the month. But I thought it was a very good reading month, and I have a lot to recommend. So let’s get to this month’s Clarkesworld and GigaNotoSaurus.
After a year or so being a regular with Clarkesworld, I’m starting to recognize a few author names, and the October issue has plenty I’d seen before. Of course, Clarkesworld is one of the best about publishing new voices—one of the many reasons I read it regularly—and I still have plenty of catching up to do on the older voices, so even in an issue with some familiar names, there were a few new-to-me authors.
One of the most familiar names was Suzanne Palmer, a two-time Hugo winner for stories I thought were unexceptional and not even on the shortlist for my favorite novelette of 2022. Go figure! She opens the issue with “Possibly Just About a Couch,” an overview of history on a galactic timescale from the perspective of a random collection of matter that happened to resemble an indestructible couch. While relatively plotless on the whole, it does contain some interesting vignettes on the lives of those whose homes end up built around it.
Lavie Tidhar’s “The Blaumilch” returns to the universe of Central Station for a short piece on finding purpose in a place that doesn’t have a lot to offer—juxtaposing some retreating into virtual reality with others engaging a baffling form of physical labor.
The issue is centered on three relatively short novelettes—all between 7,500 and 10,000 words—and all are worth the read, but for me, Lisa Papademetriou’s “Down to the Root” was the standout of the entire issue. It’s a story of spacefaring and encountering vastly different cultures, neglecting neither the quiet nor the dangerous moments in a beautiful and poignant tale that is one of my favorites of the year. I don’t want to say too much about the central conflict for fear of spoiling the experience, but I highly recommend it for fans of personal stakes in their sci-fi.
The longest novelette, David Goodman’s “Such is My Idea of Happiness,” crafts a dystopian England with a chasm-like class divide and disposable working class pushing themselves to the limit in a desperate attempt to hang onto what meager resources they have. As with many dystopias, it’s heavy on the worldbuilding, but there’s an engaging central plot holding it all together. World-driven stories are usually not my preference, but this is a good one, and I suspect it will be a big hit for fans of dystopia.
“De Profundis, A Space Love Letter” by Bella Han tells of a world so deeply flooded with AI-authored literature that they’ve forgotten the very existence of books written by humans. Until one reader tries to bring them back. Which, as it turns out, is much more complicated than it looks.
“Post Hacking for the Uninitiated” by Bella Han marks the transition from the novelette section back to short stories, for all that it’s only 600 words shorter than “De Profundis.” It cuts back and forth between perspectives and times, telling of injured companions trying to flee an oppressive government, while one of them fights through an invisible battle with a talented hacker. I’m not personally into sci-fi for the fast-paced adventures, but it seems a solid example of the style.
“Rafi” is the third Clarkesworld piece I’ve read from Amal Singh in the last year and change, and I’ve been really impressed with how he writes a dystopia. The oppressive societies are perhaps not something readers haven’t seen before, but he zeroes in on an individual family and how they respond to it. In this case, a young surveillance worker in a police state tries to hide both her conspiracy theorist father and the strange plant-like being with a penchant for breaking out into illegal song. This story is a bit overshadowed in my memory by the one that directly follows it, but it was good enough that I’m keeping my eye out for Singh’s 2024 debut novel.
And the overshadowing piece is the issue’s capstone, “Timothy: An Oral History” by Michael Swanwick. Swanwick has been a huge name in SFF for decades, but somehow I hadn’t read any of his work until this month. In “Timothy: An Oral History,” he takes an old trope that I thought had been played out for decades—what happens when a male enters an all-female society?—and breathes new life into it. As is common in such short pieces, the background question of how society got to be all-female is unexplored and requires some hefty suspension of disbelief. But the oral history format is wonderfully executed, providing little snapshots into various corners of a society that sees itself as utopian and yet maintains a toxic celebrity culture and has no real place for gender or sexual minorities. It’s a piece that asks more questions than it provides answers, but it’s a fascinating read that’s wonderfully structured, a throwback executed in such a way that it doesn’t feel old.
The non-fiction section opens with a combination of science and genre survey on the subject of gardening in space. The other bookend is Neil Clarke’s editorial looking back at all the ways the short fiction landscape has changed in his seventeen years running Clarkesworld, taking some hope from having weathered past crises as the field stares into the face of AI submissions and Amazon pulling their subscription program.
Between them are interviews with Kij Johnson and Margrét Helgadóttir, which served their usual dual purpose of (1) being interesting, and (2) making me want to read the interviewee’s work. Johnson made some waves in SFF short fiction before I really got into it, and she’s certainly now on my list of authors to circle back around to. Meanwhile, Helgadóttir is editing an anthology of Nordic speculative fiction that sounds fascinating to a reader who is always curious about how speculative fiction looks around the globe. The TBR never sleeps, but it’ll have to go on my list. Both offer fascinating discussion on their own journeys, as well as answers to one of my favorite questions: “if someone were to start with three stories from your collection/anthology, what would they be?”
As always, GigaNotoSaurus has one long story in October, this one being the novella-length “On the English Approach to the Study of History” by E. Saxon. The novella revolves around an academic conference, in which a young Scottish historian tries to push against the towering Cambridge tradition without torpedoing her own career. It’s a fascinating piece about academia, whose voices matter, and the hoops people have to jump through to be taken seriously. And then there’s the matter of the immortal royals on campus growing increasingly restless, turning a very grounded story in a distinctly fantasy direction. Personally, I found the academia aspects a bit more compelling than the fantasy elements, but they’re bound up together in an interesting story for readers who enjoy academy settings.