Well, here we are at the end of 2017. It’s been a year, hasn’t it? But through it all, fiction has brought me joy, as have the people who create it. I feel lucky to be part of incredible, creative community of writers who support and inspire each other, so thank you all. There’s no particular theme to this month’s stories. They’re works that spoke to me, including a few from earlier in the year because December is when I try to catch up on all the amazing things I’ve missed during the year. I hope 2018 brings you all good things, including many new short stories to love. See you in the new year!
"Learning to Swim" by Mimi Mondal published in Anathema Magazine opens with Uma waking from attempted suicide. It isn’t her first time try either. She doesn’t feel entirely human, identifying more with the Sylphians, an alien species living on Earth. Uma’s best friend Raon is half Sylphian. Their mother, Samantha, takes Uma in, inviting her to live in the hive, until it becomes clear Sylphians are no longer welcome on Earth.
Even my father, who took savage delight in referring to the Sylphians as bugs, had never been to the land of his ancestors, and that was just on the other side of the planet. Some humans called my father and me another, uglier word, but the noise they created was increasingly drowned out by the surging Rooted Earthlings chant. People needed an enemy. My ancestors had once been that enemy; now it was the Sylphians’ turn.
With the only people who have ever felt like family to her being forced to leave, Uma must learn to cope alone and choose whether living is worthwhile. “Learning to Swim” is a beautiful story, even as it touches on the painful subjects of xenophobia, prejudice, and the way marginalized groups such as immigrants and religious minorities are too often treated in Western countries. However, it’s also a story of hope, found family, and community building, reminding us there is kindness in the world. Samantha and Raon’s refusal to give up on Uma, and the way they see her truly even when she cannot see herself shows that sometimes reaching out to someone in pain can make all the difference in the world.
"Neptune’s Trident" by Nina Allan from the June issue of Clarkesworld is another story that uses alien life an allegory for humanity’s all-too-real fear of “the other.” Caitlin is a scavenger in a world of scarcity. Something has come from the ocean and infected certain human beings, who are now referred to as flukes. Caitlin’s partner, Steph, is one of the infected. Some days she’s barely herself, lost in pain, as though something else occupies her body.
What if Steph was a crack in the world? That was what they said about the flukes, wasn’t it? That they were a liability and a weakness. A danger to every man, woman, and child on this planet, one politician had ranted soon after the clampdown.
While scavenging, Caitlin meets a parson who claims to have a sick wife. But Steph gives her vague warnings, and Caitlin soon discovers the parson is building a movement against the “flukes,” calling them abominations and forwarding a human first/pure humanity movement. Allan weaves references to M.R. James’ classic ghost story, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” throughout the story. Caitlin finds a harmonica on the beach, and Steph likens it to the whistle found by the professor in the story that summons something powerful beyond his control. There is a parallel drawn between the parson and the professor—one a skeptic with faith only in science, the other with a narrow interpretation of biblical faith. Both are closed-minded yet convinced of their own righteousness. The story can be read as a cautionary tale about single-mindedness, resistance to change, and yearning to return to some non-existent “pure” state of a country, or in this case, the world. While there are notes of hope, a sense of lingering dread pervades. Like M.R. James, Allan offers up a tale of the uncanny, with vast, and largely unseen forces at play, existing just out of sight and beyond comprehension, leaving the tale feeling truly haunted.
Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out! by Nino Cipri in December’s issue of Nightmare is, as the title implies, told in the format of a clickbait quiz. A series of questions offers up personality types and back stories for a fictional group of dead girls—Sadie, Madelyn, Akemi, and Jane Doe. The questions hint at the way the girls died, and what life was like for them before and after death.
Your parents haven’t been super accepting of the new you. Actually, they can hardly bear to look at you [...] You know that they’re scared of you; that they can’t look at you without thinking of what happened to you.
Elements of the story are reminiscent of Sunny Moraine’s "eyes I dare not meet in dreams", touching on the disposable nature of girls and women, the violence often turned against them, and the way their deaths are alternately sensationalized or seen as inconvenient. The dead girls make the living uncomfortable, but at the same time, they are fetishized, their deaths romanticized. They are no longer people, but trademarked property, collectible items, their deaths not even belonging to them anymore, but belonging to the world at large. Cipri perfectly balances a clever delivery with real darkness, and gives the story bite—all in just a few thousand words.
"When Stars Are Scattered" by Spencer Ellsworth, published at Tor.com in April is set on an alien planet. Ahmed, a doctor specializing in viruses, is sent by the Islamic Confederation to help determine the cause of a sickness killing the native residents of the planet, nicknamed “kites” by humans. The kites have picked up Arabic, and adopted the Islamic faith, communicating with the Muslim colonists, but not the Christian homesteaders.
Now, the kites just happened to eat the cash crops the Nova Christos homesteaders depended on. So the Christians killed them like pests, and the Muslims brought them to prayers. The territorial authorities argued that the kites weren’t fully sentient, and the Islamic Confederation was mired in political games of their own.
An older kite who has taken the name Ibrahim seems resistant to the disease. As Ahmed studies Ibrahim, he experiences emotions and extremely vivid memories that seem to belong to the kite. Adéla, the nurse working with Ahmed, experiences them too, leading Ahmed to suspects pheromones are affecting those working closely with the kites. Adéla’s husband Jose, the imam, is convinced the virus is man-made, engineered by the Christian homesteaders. Tensions rise, coming to a breaking point when a homesteader robs Adéla at gunpoint, taking medical supplies, leading to a violent attack and retaliation. The story is fraught with suspicion— the Christian homesteaders believe the kites and the Muslims are conspiring to destroy their crops, while Jose and others in the community believe the Christians are deliberately killing the kites. The kites themselves seem largely peaceful, but they speak of jihad, struggle. Ahmed races to understand the virus, while also trying to determine what jihad means to the kites, what prayer means to them, and what the visions he’s experiencing signify. Ellsworth weaves a complex and beautifully-told story, exploring religious faith, and characters’ faith in their own personal worldviews. Both can be a source of healing and comfort, and can lead people to close themselves off from understanding each other. True to life, there are no easy answers here, but there are questions that explore the many of the most fundamental aspects of humanity.
"Verweile Doch (But Linger)" by Rich Larson in December’s Omni Magazine opens with Cesar lying on the floor of a restaurant, eying a cockroach about to be crushed by an incoming shoe. Cesar has infinite time to consider the cockroach, as well as the severs, the patrons, the chef and everything else in the restaurant, which he’s kept frozen in time for months on end now.
The tray he was carrying is now connected to only two fingertips. The glass pitcher of water is past the point of no return, already adrift in the air, its contents sloshing out in a frozen parabola of droplets. Micha the line cook, twisting at the waist in response to Devon’s shout, is going to get it full in the face. Hopefully it doesn’t make her slip with the knife, which is poised over a bright orange bell-pepper but is also perilously close to her index finger.
It’s an evocative opening, calling to mind the way the trope of frozen time plays out in movies and TV. Despite the cinematic staging, Cesar is currently using stopped time in rather mundane ways—gorging on the restaurant’s food and alcohol, letting his beard grow, and making up stories about the diners. As a child, he used his power to explore, take extra time to see the world around him, and play games. As a teenager, he used it win friends by stealing food and alcohol from convenience stores, and giving himself extra time to come up with the perfect, witty response in conversation. Cesar also used his power to cheat at the racetrack to pay his father’s hospital bills, growing increasingly estranged from his sister in the process, making it obvious an old wound in the family isn’t entirely healed. The story calls to mind Chloe N. Clarke’s "Other Names" reviewed in last month’s column. Over the course of the story, Larson reveals the source of the rift in Cesar’s family—a car accident that killed his mother when he was a child, one his power to stop time couldn’t prevent. It’s telling that Cesar uses his power mostly for petty things. Despite his amazing ability, he feels powerless, caught up in his guilt over his mother, and unable to talk to anyone about it, because who would believe him? Despite the fantastical premise, Larson offers up a story that is grounded and realistic. Everyone has things in their lives they’d rather put off, uncomfortable conversations they would love to delay indefinitely. It’s a quiet story, but a powerful one, using a science fictional trope to explore the human condition, as the best speculative fiction stories often do.