X Marks the Story: March 2021
Finding excellent short SFF can often feel like hunting for buried treasure. Sometimes it takes a guide to help fill in the map, connecting readers with fantastic fiction and showing where X Marks The Story–a monthly column from Charles Payseur.
The snow has finally melted from my yard! For most of the Northern Hemisphere, that means Spring is in the air! Plants are sluggishly trying to poke up, the squirrels are incredibly chonky, and the fiction is…well, complicated and wrenching and so so beautiful. And this month there’s some interesting and innovative flourishes as well. From interactive fiction to stories framed as wiki entries with annotated song lyrics, the stories I’m rounding up today show how varied and how creative short SFF can be, while losing nothing in power or impact. So grab your compass and your map and let’s get to it!
“Diamonds and Pearls” by JL George (Fireside Magazine #88)
What It Is: Language is quite literally tied to gems in the world of this story, where as people learn words, they cough up different kinds of gemstones. And Osian grows up learning to covet diamonds, for the language of the common tongue, rather than pearls, which only emerge as people learn words in the old tongue. The story finds Osian struggling against his culture, his heritage, his desires, a ball of conflicting emotions that threatens to come spilling loose once he goes away to university and meets another student, a linguist, and has to challenge everything he thinks he knows. The story is built around this core of language and how we value it, how we lose it, and how we can reclaim it, and interwoven with that is a love story that is warm and sharp all at once.
Why I Love It: Osian is such a compelling character to me, so caught up in his own bullshit, hurt and damaged by an upbringing but rather ignorant of it, not wanting to examine the ways he’s been cut off from his past, from his family’s history. He’s invested in the valuation that society has put on the dominant language and the suppressed one. The new and the old. And it takes meeting someone who deeply challenges him, who captivates him, who has such a different set of values, to threaten that worldview. That comfort with all that he’s lost. And it makes so much sense, it speaks so real, especially to me as an American where there is no “official language” but where there’s certainly a value placed on what languages a person does (and doesn’t) know. And the ending is so sweet, so heart-meltingly adorable, that I can’t help but recommend going out and reading this story immediately!
“The Captain and the Quartermaster” by C.L. Clark (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #326)
What It Is: For most of this story, the characters are marked not by their names but by their roles in a revolution that has been going on for much longer than anyone expected. For years they have been fighting against a Tyrant, and their fortunes shift with the seasons. But the Captain keeps on fighting, and the Quartermaster keeps on making sure the army has enough food and supplies, and together their love is something that gives the rest of the army hope. And the story looks at that, at these two women giving everything they have to a war and to each other, and finding that after all that they might not have much left for themselves.
Why I Love It: The relationship at the heart of this story is so amazing, messy, and queer, that I can’t help but love it to bits. And the way that the story flits through time, teasing out the different moments, the first meeting, the falling for each other, the turmoil, the resilience—it’s just a fabulous ride that the reader is treated to. More than that, though, the story breaks expectations with the romance, pulling away from what we might have been taught happy endings look like. I won’t spoil it but the story does a fantastic job of complicating how people can love, how people can stay together, and how they sometimes need to drift apart. And it reveals that no relationship is as important as the people in it, and ultimately people have to do what’s best and right for them, even when I might cry a bit at the ending. An emotionally stunning read!
“According to Leibniz (maybe this isn’t what he meant); or, Rasharelle Little: Goddess of Postal Worker NBs” by Isana Skeete (Strange Horizons 03/15/2021)
What It Is: Felix’s Dyad is a headless chicken that might also be a physical manifestation of their uncontrolled anxiety. It clucks. And sort of makes a spectacle of itself. And isn’t any good at parties. Though neither is Felix, really. The story follows them as they deal with being a Monad with a headless chicken Dyad (not as cool as a cobra or a sexy cat), through their work at the post office, and around their crush on a coworker. And it reveals how they start to approach having their Dyad, how they can maybe stop seeing it as an enemy and hindrance, and instead embrace it for what it is, embrace themself for who they are, and even begin to practice some self-care. All that captured in a charming voice that flows, that keeps things casual and sarcastic and amazing.
Why I Love It: The story has such an energy to it, where Felix is just trying so hard to get by, to live their best life, and having to navigate what that means and how to do that when it’s just hard to inhabit their body sometimes, with its headless chicken Dyad and anxiety and baggage. Their go-to move is to avoid, to laugh through, to joke about things. But that doesn’t face their problems, and the story finds them starting to change that, to confront the things they would rather avoid, to have hard conversations, both with themself and with those they want to be closer to. It’s really a lot of fun, too, from the strangeness of this headless but not voiceless chicken to the way that they are able to break out of their insecurity in order to take a chance that they’ve been wanting to take for a long time. And the informal structure, the breaks of almost poetic formatting, add further personality to the work. It’s an incredible story!
“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny #39)
What It Is: Framed as an entry on a kind of wiki or other crowd-sourced site, this story unfolds as a conversation had between people contributing to the entry on a particular folk song. One that might have origins in something strange and…true. At least, that’s the narrative that begins to come clear as the work progresses, moving from interpretations and posts to a full annotated analysis of the song in line by line fashion. It might not sound like it, but it’s a rather tense and chilling work, full of mystery and possibility, implications that are all the more ominous for the nature of the framing technique, the outdated internet format that makes the story itself seem a seed waiting to full grow and flower.
Why I Love It: There’s something just so satisfying about the way this story comes together, all the pieces so meticulously placed, waiting for the reader to click them into a whole picture. The story is grounded with such care that for me is has this very authentic feel to it, as if this could be a thing on the internet, casually stumbled across. And I think that’s part of the horror, too, that the pieces here haven’t quite all been put together by the people on the board. Like so many things on the internet, they’ve been assembled in a bout of passion and interest and now just sort of…languish. And while this might seem like it would be frustrating, for me it’s rather sinister, this hanging implication, this warning that no one seems to be fully picking up on, and it’s chilling and wonderfully done!
“Las Girlfriends Guide to Subversive Eating” by Sabrina Vourvoulias (Apex #122)
What It Is: It’s rare to come across an interactive story in a more traditional short SFF publication, in part because they’re rather difficult to include in an issue format. Which is why Apex has broken this one out to live entirely online, and the story is framed beautifully and rather convincingly as a kind of website, promising a tour of a local food scene mixed with magic, resistance, survival, and love. The format is fascinating and embedded into the tour stops, About Page, and other links there emerges a story, a narrative of people coming together from many different backgrounds to enrich a place that’s become all of their home.
Why I Love It: I do love the way this all fits together, the way that the story manages to take me on a journey. I mean, that it’s a functioning map is just great, and that it covers so much, not just food but the different roads these women have walked, the different routes to the same physical space, is amazingly done. The food descriptions sound delicious but don’t overshadow the culture or magic on display here, the web of different people and peoples all coming together in defiance to protect what can be protected, to spread what joy and love can be spread. The characters pop from the screen, and the work acts as a bridge between some of the author’s other stories, as well (including links to where to check those out), which is a nice way to make the setting more vivid, more real. It’s got such a warm heart, and so many layers, that make it a wonderful and unforgettable experience!
Looking for some X-tra recommendations? Then good news, because here are some more great stories to X-plore!
There were actually a few novellas out recently from short fiction publications, including the intricate and thoroughly world-built “Arisudan” by Rimi B. Chatterjee (Mithila Review #15). It imagines a world rocked by corruption and disaster, but not yet without hope. And “Submergence” by Arula Ratnakar (Clarkesworld #174) is part murder mystery, part romance, part dive into memory and consciousness, and is a powerful read.
I also read some recent short story collections, and of the originals I had some favorites. “Useless Eaters” by Brian Koukol (Handicapsules: Short stories of Speculative Crip Lit) is brash and compelling, about a group of disabled buskers supporting each other and refusing to shrink in the face of ableist bullshit. Meanwhile “Love: An Archaeology” by Fabio Fernandes (Love: An Archaeology) is a kind of possibility-hopping story, linking alternate realities to the conversation and correspondence of two sisters, and the complicated ways they are linked..
And I guess though most of my Xs this month leaned fantasy, I did read a bunch of strong science fiction stories, including “The Office Drone” by Nic Lipitz (Future Science Fiction Digest #10), which is fun and funny and features a literal office drone showing the figurative drones how to really get some office work done. “k.a. (birthright)” by Lam Ning (The Future Fire #2021.56) is a more somber and serious story, finding two people in the aftermath of a war figuring out how to live and recover. A theme that echoes in “A Sunrise Every 90 Minutes” by Victoria Zelvin (Flash Fiction Online 03/2021), told from outer space, and perhaps the last human astronaut wonders what’s happened to Earth after a mysterious disaster, and decides how to meet this uncertain future.
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