As a fan of short form fantasy and science fiction, I read to find work that drives the genre forward while examining its roots. I’m excited by stories that act as an escape hatch, prose both lyrical and utilitarian, and work that makes me uncomfortable and pushes me to places I wouldn’t normally go. Space romps and monsters are good, too. In rounding up several short stories of note each month, I hope to chronicle how SF/F is changing, how it illuminates contemporary life and drills down to the murky things moving beneath the surface.
“Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye” By Claire Humphrey (Published: September 1, 2014)
There are stories I see myself in and stories I can’t unsee myself in. Claire Humphrey’s “Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye,” a piece about curfews, control, and those who want to rebel as opposed to those who must, is firmly in the latter category. It immediately made its way into my list of favorite stories from this past month. Using a near-future tech bracelet known as a “safekeeper,” Rebecca’s father is able to assure she isn’t kidnapped. He can also monitor who she kisses and if she has alcohol in her blood. So Rebecca hangs out with her friends while drinking Snapple and tries to make the best of her rapidly tightening restrictions. Most wrenching are the moments when she feebly convinces herself that this isn’t so bad, it’s fine, she can live with strict curfews, overprotective parents, and a bracelet that zaps people if they get too close. She just has to last until she’s eighteen.
The individual experiences may not be my own, but the sense of powerlessness as a teenage girl, the idea of being valued as an object to protect rather than an autonomous entity capable of making informed decisions, resonates strongly. Its science fictional element is central to examine the line between safety and privacy violations. For those hoping for a firmer tie to traditional genre trappings, a serial killer on the loose is what initially prompts Rebecca’s father to take protective measures. How this is important to the themes of the story and who and what society sees as criminal, however, is an entirely different matter.
“Patterns of a Murmuration, in Billions of Data Points” By Jy Yang (Published: September 1, 2014)
Clarkesworld is my go-to market for “worst case scenario” sci-fi: the environmental disaster was a-lot-worse-than-previously-suggested, everyone you love is dead, dying, or fading away, and the sun exploded about five minutes ago so enjoy your martini. It’s awesome. Not every story is about deliciously harsh tragedy, but at its best, the publication makes catastrophe moving and personal as seen in “Patterns of a Murmuration, in Billions of Data Points.”
An artificial intelligence system, referred to as “Starling,” is stricken when one of their mothers is killed in what’s written off as an accidental fuel explosion. Starling mourns and risks turning their computational fury into the very thing that could ruin the goals of their remaining creators. Crunching the numbers reveals this may be a politically motivated massacre between two groups: the Right and the Left. Whether these are strictly analogue to liberal and conservative parties in our world is difficult to determine. Regardless, both the prose and grief unfold with the utility and sharpness of a switchblade between the ribs. What’s important is not just the stab of tragedy, however, but what Starling does in its wake.
“Quick Hill” By M.T. Anderson (Published: September 9, 2014) Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales
Editors: Kelly Link and Gavin Grant Publisher: Candlewick Press Amazon | Google | Kobo
Along with the killer author line-up, one of my key motivations in buying the YA short story anthology, Monstrous Affections, was my desperation to read Sarah Rees Brennan’s “Wings in the Morning.” The story is a sequel to her free online serial, “The Turn of the Story,” a sharp secondary world pastiche that explores and celebrates the tropes of fantasy fiction and YA romance while working to subvert expectations. In a similar vein, the stories in this anthology explore twists on and variations of the trope, “Human meets monster.” Each piece takes the theme and runs with it in a completely different direction. Some encounters are terrifying, some romantic, some tilt young, and some are just plain tilted. The last best fits “Quick Hill,” one of my favorites in the collection.
M.T. Anderson’s piece is nice, grim, and a wonderfully uncomfortable entry in the anthology. It follows Don Thwait and the denizens of a small town during World War II, in a world that isn’t quite our own. In between talk of war bonds and soldiers shot down in the Pacific, people casually mention “spirit hives” and a deal the town struck long ago with its largest hill. The nostalgia for small town 1940s America is sweet and potent, folded nicely into the chilling build of the story, but it hides the creeping horror and hypocrisy of a town that will do anything to protect its own.
“When Gods and Vampires Roamed Miami” By Kendare Blake (Published: September 16, 2014) Tor.com
Light fare but enjoyable. In early-nineties Miami, a troubled goth kid mistakes the cigar-smoking goddess Athena for a vampire. She just barely tolerates his pursuit because “it’s nice to feel his eyes on her, like worship. She hasn’t had that in a very long time.” The boy’s not as clever as he thinks he is, but, unfortunately for them both, and perhaps to the disdain of mythology purists everywhere, neither is Athena. The shape of the story feels like a one-off in a much longer narrative, so it’s not a surprise it takes place in the world of Blake’s YA series, The Goddess Wars. Still, it works on its own, marrying what would otherwise be a goofy punch line to its logical conclusion.
Gillian Daniels is a writer of prose, poetry, and criticism. After attending the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in 2011, her poems and fiction have been published in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Flash Fiction Online, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine among others. Her reviews are available at The New England Theatre Geek blog and other venues. She is a transplant from Northeast Ohio and is highly suspicious of her home in the New World, i.e. Boston.