Oh, how I wish I could read every SFF short story published in 2020! If you missed these excellent stories, they're worth going back for (yes, even into 2020).
“We’re Here, We’re Here” by K.M. Szpara (@KMSzpara) is an unapologetically sweet narrative where music executives attempt to keep transgender singer Tyler and the rest of the boy band in line by removing Tyler’s voice when he goes off-script. Szpara constructs a compellingly intricate social setting where Tyler’s transgender status is openly accepted and well-known, but his affection for another bandmate pits him against unwritten rules and the unbalanced power differential between band members and their record label. Tyler’s simple need to be himself plucks the universal cord of human rights, while the tender friendship of he and his bandmates calls to our need for tribalistic support against any who abuse their power over us. Szpara’s accessible characters and solid story structure plunges readers into a compelling narrative of empathy and self-actualization.
In “Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker (@SarahPinsker), Stella’s help cleaning out the house of a deceased childhood friend unearths reality-shifting evidence of a past that should only exist in her web of compulsive lies. When Stella blurts out the name of a childhood show she believes she’s invented for a lark, she soon learns that not only does the ultra-creepy “Uncle Bob” show exist on VHS tapes, but that she herself has ties to the show that she has no recollection of. Stella’s memories of her dead friend Denny take on new significance as she learns more about the show that nearly every kid in town took part in. Pinsker cultivates the traditional theme of prophecy and fate into her own brand of horror, blending folk-tale elements with modern knowledge of hoarding and compulsive lying. Stella’s own tenuous grip on reality keeps readers guessing which way she’ll go until the very end.
In “Exile’s End” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (http://www.carolynivesgilman.com/), museum curator Rue finds herself at odds with a representative from a culture long persecuted for destroying their possessions. When Traversed Bridge and his people insist that burning a famous painting will release the ghost inside, Rue and the museum must decide who truly owns art, and if ownership includes the right to destroy. Gilman’s timely dive into cultural reparations brings us skillfully into the worlds of both the dominant and persecuted cultures, through the eyes of a protagonist whose wish to preserve both runs aground on the rocky shores of liberty. Sympathetic characters and gentle pacing elevate this story above a prescriptive guilt trip of dominant culture; like Rue and Traversed Bridge, Gilman leaves us to interpret the art of “Exile’s End” for ourselves.
“Flight” by Claire Wrenwood (https://clairewrenwood.com/) lays out the vivid bones of its social commentary from the start, opening with a winged mother’s decision to finally address her five-year-old son’s micro-aggressions against women. Scenes then unfold in reverse chronological order, prying back to the origin of the mother’s wings and beyond, bringing the narrative full-circle to her wingless childhood. From its brave opening to the punch at the end, Wrenwood’s delicate depiction of trauma provides readers with moving, powerful insight into cycles of victimization against women. Content warning: sexual abuse.
“What Comes Before” by John Nadas (@John Nadas), psychologist Dr. Brosz attempts to refuse the implementation of new magic-tech that claims to photograph the condition of a person’s soul, showing halos around those destined for heaven. When his patients, all violent criminals in prison, are photographed against his wishes, his superiors then expect to condemn the supposedly lost souls to a solitary confinement where there will be no rehabilitation, and therefore no danger to the public. While Dr. Bosz and his colleagues question who—or what—can possibly be trusted to sort irredeemable criminals from those who might yet be saved, the narrative poses a question of determinism, from subtle details like Dr. Bosz’ inability to quit smoking, to an inmate’s claim of undeniable impulses, to the government forcing Dr. Bosz to use the thaumatic cameras he declined. Nada’s voice is both efficient and compelling, balancing a philosophic exploration of Calvinism with a passionate, earnest character surrounded by high stakes. A haunting tale that reveals even more on the second read.
“After Me, The Flood” Elizabeth Zuckerman (@LizCanTweet) draws readers into an immersive first-person narrative of a selkie-child’s attempts to distance herself from a king who sees her as a replacement for the selkie wife who abandoned them. Unhappy on land and at the constant beck-and-call of her father, Princess Dahut promises to keep a room ready for him if he’ll build her a city on the sea, and he agrees, expending a fortune on an enchanted wall to keep out the ocean waters. Yet, this measure of freedom proves insufficient, as glimpses of private conversations with her father build on the subtle picture of familial abuse hinted at in little, casual moments from the start. It’s no accident that Zuckerman opens “After Me, The Flood” with Dahut asking her father for a story: her father’s been telling her the story of her captivity all her life. Can the brainwashing of an over-controlling father keep his half-selkie daughter from answering the call of the ocean? Zuckerman’s clever use of structure and detail transforms a classic selkie’s quest for freedom into the profound tale of a daughter discovering her magic and her Self under the suffocating oppression of those who should be her protectors. Content warning: sexual abuse.
“And The Ones Who Walk In” Sarah Avery (@SarahAveryBooks), readers follow our young protagonist beyond the charmed borders of her city’s luck spell, a journey driven by the conviction that no amount of magic safety is worth the misery of another. The inhospitable outer lands will immediately test not only her moral mettle, but her ability to survive—and her ability to empathize with those who chose to walk back into her city of misery-powered prosperity. Astute readers will recognize the reference to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, yet knowledge of Le Guin’s story is not strictly required to plumb the depths of Avery’s subversive piece, which stands on its own. In a story with no easy answers, Avery pits her protagonist’s untested conviction against the down-trodden acceptance of those who walk back into the luckbringer’s unwilling blessing, for no one knows a more foolproof way to protect the frail loved ones that the world consumes in fire and bloodshed.