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Short Speculative Fiction: An April Roundup

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015 | Posted by Learned Foote

Lightspeed-Magazine-April-2015-475 Clarkesworld-103-475 The-Magazine-of-Fantasy-Science-Fiction-March-April-2015-475

Hi Black Gate Readers!

My name is Learned Foote. Here’s the first installment of a new monthly column on short fiction. I’ll branch out from fantasy, and discuss some sci-fi publications. Each month, I’ll read a bunch of magazines and then give some recommendations for stories I particularly enjoyed (original fiction only, no reprints). I’d love to hear from you: what do you think of these stories? What’s missing from this list?

This column includes stories from Lightspeed (Issue 59, April 2015), Clarkesworld (Issue 103, April 2014), and Fantasy and Science Fiction (March/April 2015). Lightspeed & Clarkesworld can be read for free online, and F&SF costs between $1-3, depending on whether you subscribe or purchase an individual issue. Click on the issue covers above for additional details.

Onto the stories!

“This Is the Way the Universe Ends: with a Bang”
By Brian Dolton
From F&SF, March/April 2015

Humans are long-dead. The protagonist is a “cloud of fluxing energy, a lattice of flickering quantum-state conversions” named Titus. She sounds abstract, and so she is. She’s the seventh oldest entity in a universe near death. But she’s nonetheless an engaging and relatable character. Though the beings in this story have names like =/= and Infinite Recursion, they have personality and emotional resonance. The author made me care about their fate. Ultimately this is a story about survival. And a story it is: one with mystery and hidden motives and shifting allegiances and a twist of an ending. The setting is lovely and poetic, the story is cosmic in scope and creative in its world-building, and the moving conclusion made my throat tighten.

“What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear”
By Bao Shu (translated by Ken Liu)
From F&SF, March/April 2015

Ah: How to review this novella without spoiling it? This is very much a concept story, and I recommend experiencing it as the narrative unfolds rather than hearing the twist second-hand (a clue as to the story’s structure occurs in the first few pages, but it took me awhile longer to catch on). The story is heavy on history (primarily Chinese political history), which might feel dense and dry to some readers. I enjoyed the macrocosmic scale, especially because the focus always returns to its well-rendered human characters. Ultimately, though, this story is a thought-piece. I’m not sure if the conception quite becomes everything it could have been (the story dispensed with causality too thoroughly for me to “believe” the philosophical conclusion) but it’s still provocative and interesting. Incidentally, Bao Shu apparently broke out in his writing career writing fan-fiction in the universe of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and if you enjoyed that (which I did) this is an excellent companion work. I’m not sure whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi, but it’s speculative.

The Empress in Her Glory
by Robert Reed
From Clarkesworld, April 2015

This story deals with an alien invasion, but the ETs exist only at the edges of the plot. The main strength of this piece is the wonderful characterization of Adrienne Hammer: a quiet and observant blogger who becomes an Empress. The sheer likability of her character makes this story memorable. She is sober and quotidian, but possesses heroic dimensions: “Not the smartest person in a room, but the entity most likely to see exactly what was happening and what the next step needed to be.” The brief story breezes through massive world-changing events, but Adrienne acts as a calming anchor. Reed’s prose is lucid and clear, but the story’s meaning is ambiguous. I don’t understand the significance of the ending, or just what the aliens intend (nor does Adrienne fully understand, it seems, either the aliens’ motives, or the horrific and all-too-familiar politics of Earth that she tries to improve), but after spending time with Adrienne, I feel somehow more serene, even if the meaning of it all remains elusive, and hope seems distant. A story that ripens on multiple readings.

We’ll Be Together Forever
by Joseph Allen Hill
From Lightspeed, April 2015

Here’s a story about a couple that uses a love potion to get high. Right away, the emotion feels true and lived-in: it’s a relationship gone just slightly bad. Deeply relatable. There’s a sense of history to the characters, and every nuance of their relationship rings true. It’s the type of thing I’d expect to read in a non-genre literary magazine. And then they start stirring a pot of blood on the stove, and the fantasy plot-line kicks in, and I won’t say anything more. But I’d highly recommend reading this one to find out where it goes (crazy as it is, it has its own drug-addled logic). Hill’s writing is fantastic. The tone is casual, breezy and humorous — always a pleasure — and I learned at least three new words to boot. I love writing that balances between elegance and compulsive readability.

A Residence for Friendless Ladies
By Alice Sola Kim
From F&SF, March/April 2015

Against his will, a trans boy is forced to take up residence in a very creepy place: part haunted house, part asylum, part finishing school, part its own special brand of weirdness. Seriously, it’s hard to figure the mechanics of this place out (and I think the characters feel the same way). Even after reading the story several times, I’m not sure I understand the titular setting, or how it works, or what the ending means. But I appreciate the atmosphere, and there are several lingering creepy sequences. The psychology of the piece also works well, especially the protagonist’s discomfort in his body, his sundered family relations, and his resistance to the totalitarian house (or is it totalitarian after all?). The ladies of the residence are also very appealing characters who are fun to read about. This story kind of makes me want to track someone else who’s read it down, to ask, “what exactly was that, then?” I’m not totally sure I’m won over, but it definitely induced a reaction in me and left me musing over it for hours afterwards, and I admire the vigorous, angsty prose quite a lot.

The Mantis Tattoo
By Paul M. Berger
From F&SF, March/April 2015

Right from the opening scene, in which boys battle a giant porcupine, this novelette has a fine feeling of adventure. It’s set in pre-history, with characters that resemble Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. The author has spoken about taking his inspiration from museum dioramas of prehistoric man, but one aspect of the story comes solely from his imagination: the presence of spirit guides battling through the interaction of these tribes. This background worked very well for me, and made for an exciting and unusual tale. There are a few things that don’t quite work about the story for me (for instance, an overly modern voice, as when the main character keeps on talking about a “list,” which gives a distressing impression of paper and literacy), but aside from these minor criticisms, this is an enjoyable tale that kept me reading straight through to the end. Pretty wily characters too. Good fun.

Interested in fantasy magazines? Check out the Black Gate Late April Fantasy Magazine Rack here, and all our current magazine coverage — with updates on 23 ongoing publications — is here

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