Things I’ve Been Reading (short story edition)

(You can also read this post on Buttondown.)

Hi all,

Before we get into any story recs, I want to tell you I’ll be at the virtual Nebula conference this weekend! I’m moderating one panel: Writing and Navigating Publishing as Persons With Disabilities, at 1:30pm PST, with the excellent panelists Effie Seiberg, Sumiko Saulson, and Vickie Navarra. If you’re at the Nebulas, stop by – I think it’ll be a great discussion!

But now, I’ve promised you I’ll tell you about some stories I’ve loved or found thought-provoking since last October. (Though many of them were published earlier than that; I’m not a super timely reader.) Here goes!

*

It rises upward with a snort of steam and sparks of flame, lifting its spiked reptilian head from the waves. It’s silhouetted in moonlight and bisected by the surface line. You know it’s too big to be there.

Nic Anstett, “Monsters of the Drunken Shore” (Lightspeed, July 2023)

This is really short and packs an emotional punch, without anything necessarily “happening,” per se. I love the juxtaposition of the big, unknowable sea creature with the big, confused feelings of the college-age protagonists who are still just trying to grow up.

*

“You’ve left the doors open?”

“All of them. The child just goes and hides even further in the dark.”

Cynthia Gómez, “The Ones Who Come Back to Heal” (Strange Horizons, July 17, 2023)

Omelas stories are a bit of a hard sell for me. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them, it’s just that it’s getting to be a cliché. This one rang really true for me, though, with its focus on the slow, painful, uncertain reality of helping someone heal from heavy trauma, and on the consent and free will of the person being healed. [1]

*

Cynthia Gómez, “Lips Like Sugar” (Luna Station Quarterly, Issue 55)

Looks like Luna Station Quarterly’s website is under reconstruction, so I can’t get a pull quote or a proper link right now. And I actually didn’t realize, until just now when I was putting this post together, that I was reccing two stories in a row by the same author. But! I love this queer, working-class take on the vampire story. Vivi is an immortal creature of the night, but that doesn’t save her from having to deal with rent, menial work, relationship troubles, or the supervisor who’s sexually harassing her. Still, she’s powerful in new ways – and it takes her time to decide what she wants to use that power for.

*

What is worse, I heard that all those rejected by your magazine also die. This is of course all just silly rumours. I notice that your magazine only has one story on it, despite its ridiculously high pay rate of a hundred thousand dollars per story. These are just the silly worries of a newbie writer, and your standards are probably just high.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, “The Magazine of Horror” (Apex Magazine, Issue 139, August 2023)

This is a fun little story that I read in two different ways. It works just fine as a bit of silly, fluffy horror about a magazine that’s more than it seems and a naive author who doesn’t believe the clear warnings. But I think there’s also a metaphor here for some things that really happen in publishing – in particular for the idea that there can only be one, best author from a particular group, especially a marginalized group; and that, once you’ve had your turn being the best, the only remaining path is a dramatic fall from grace.

*

“I like the little singing you do to yourself,” Ashley said nonchalantly, not even looking up from her console. “You have a really nice voice.”

“Oh, thanks,” I said quietly, “I put a lot of work into it.” I wanted to say so much, about the challenges and frustration it had caused me, the intense dysphoria I felt about it from an early age, the agony and joy of learning to sing again—but I knew if I opened up, it would only fan the fires of the feelings I had towards Ashley. For me, vulnerability was a dangerous substance, a doorway to desire.

Tessa Fisher, “Morning Star Blues” (Rosalind’s Siblings, September 2023)

Kelsey, a trans woman scientist, is on a long-haul flight to Venus with another trans woman to search for signs of life. After a sexual assault scare between a cis man and woman on a previous mission, Mission Control hopes that fielding all-trans-women teams, with their hormones purposely adjusted to keep their sex drives low, will prevent any repeats of that situation. Despite this, Kelsey is developing a crush on her crewmate. There’s a lot to unpack here about how trans people – especially trans women – are simultaneously desexualized and seen as sexual threats, and how delicate it can be to form intimate relationships in spite of all this; and Fisher does unpack the latter part of it gently and vulnerably.

*

“But she wasn’t you,” she goes on, when I don’t respond. “I looked into those big baby eyes and I saw absolutely nothing.”

Lindsay King-Miller, “Changeling” (Baffling, Issue Thirteen, October 2, 2023)

You know I’m a sucker for changeling stories. This one comes at it from a queer & eating disordered perspective, not an autistic one, but it makes the underlying toxicity of changeling folklore – the idea that a parent can and should hurt a child, if it’s not the child they wanted or believed they deserved – painfully and beautifully clear.

*

So the queen wavin’ and I only know that I have to throw flowers at she. The queen so close to me, I can almost go up to touch she. So everybody cheering and throwing flowers, and I go to throw my flowers, and I pelt it—stem, leaf, thorn and all, right up next to she face.

Sarah Ramdawar, “I Attack the Queen!” (Strange Horizons, October 30, 2023)

I love what this quick, punchy piece of flash fiction does with POV and with defamiliarization. How something that looks expected and mundane in one way, to the dominant culture, can be completely surreal in another. (I don’t know if it would be defamiliarizing in the same way to someone who is actually from Trinidad – probably not! – but all I can really report is my own response.)

*

I’m overriding the doors. You all know as well as I do that—can you hear me? I’m not getting anything on the speakers in here. You all know as well as I do that no one can come in until the shielding is back in place.

Premee Mohamed, “Imagine Yourself Happy” (Small Wonders, Issue 5, November 2023)

This is, again, very short – it’s literally just four minutes of a dying scientist’s last monologue. Given that premise, it’s surprisingly matter-of-fact and accepting; it ends up saying something that really resonates with me about the nature and purpose of a finite life.

*

“Did they catch you, Ol. Did anybody see you?”

“Oh. Oh, no.”

I let the silence stretch. They reached to turn on the road trip playlist, and I interrupted to ask: “Then why did I have to drive that fast?”

I let my eyes drift from the road for a split second to assess what was going on with my friend. Their eyes were huge in the lights of a passing semi. Their face was set, stoic. “You know how my parents are.”

Marissa Lingen, “A Piece of the Continent” (Uncanny, Issue Fifty-Five, November/December 2023)

I don’t know why this little trans ghost story hit me as hard as it did – but then, Marissa Lingen’s short stories always knock it out of the park.

*

i think I believe that. But the human mind can hold such contradictory thoughts. At the same time that I say the words “time in the sun,” I am thinking of Ann falling. As if spliced into a disorderly film, my many memories of Ann’s falls run together…

Beston Barnett, “Patsy Cline Sings Sweet Dreams to the Universe” (Strange Horizons, November 20, 2023)

METI is an artificial intelligence designed to greet extraterrestrials, in the depths of space, by showing them a single human memory. But memory is complicated – perhaps more complicated than METI’s designers anticipated – and to understand the meaning of even one memory requires an enormous depth of context and acceptance of contradiction. This one seems like it could be pretty abstract at first, but it gradually blossoms into something devastatingly human.

*

A tide of unrelenting change, of complete and perfect impossibility, washes over them in the tunnel. The walls taste metallic when she looks at them; her skin feels like the smell of rain on sun-warmed pavement. Her fingers are willow branches and her tongue is the colour of fear.

Richard Ford Burley, “After Angels” (Haven Speculative, Issue Twelve, December 2023)

I absolutely love the weird, surreal, numinous horror in this story. Like, yes!! This is how it’s done!!

*

The sketch showed a young woman, her face a perfect oval, holding our base in her cupped hands. Behind her head, Saturn hung golden within its halo of rings. That was the first sign that religion had come with us to Enceladus.

Zohar Jacobs, “The Enceladus South Pole Base Named After V.I. Lenin” (Clarkesworld, February 2024)

I’ve been experiencing an enthusiasm lately for realistic stories about space travel. I don’t necessarily mean stories that could 100% happen in real life – but I do mean stories in a future world where there hasn’t been any massive advance like FTL, cryosleep, or artificial gravity that would fundamentally change the experience of spaceflight compared to what it is now, and where there’s attention to the little details of what present-day spaceflight and the solar system are actually like. This story scratches that itch, but it also does much more – it’s an impressively nuanced story about politics, religion, and the messy inevitability of social change.

*

[1] Before you ask, yes, I did also read Isabel J. Kim’s Omelas story that went viral a few months ago. Kim’s version is clever and hard-hitting – and I love everything Kim writes, generally – but I still like Gómez’s version best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.