Nothing beats short fiction for quickly experiencing lots of new ideas, authors, and stories in a shorter span of reading time. It's readily available, too. Whether you consume them via free online fiction sites or through the many anthologies and collections published every month, short fiction also serves as a terrific palate cleanser between longer reads. Those are just some of the reasons why I love reading short fiction. Another is that it's just plain fun.
Here's a roundup of my recent adventures in short fiction reading…
The Eagle Has Landed: 50 Years of Lunar Science Fiction edited by Neil Clarke
Neil Clarke is offering two large science fiction anthologies this year. First is The Eagle Has Landed: 50 Years of Lunar Science Fiction. As the title makes clear, this themed anthology collects science fiction stories dealing with Earth's moon that have been written since the first moon landing five decades ago. As Clarke notes in his introduction, lunar fiction waned in the years following the historic event, a result of its secrets moving closer to fact than fiction. But eventually, with mankind's lunar dreams unrealized, science fiction returned to fill the void. The results are some very fine stories, like Stephen Baxter's "People Came From Earth," which depicts a kind of lunar dystopia where the Earth is no longer livable and what's left of mankind now lives on the moon. It's both a personal story and an epic one; personal with respect to its elder protagonist and his hopeful nephew, and epic for the years-long plan they conceive to save mankind from its eventual extinction. Earth also sees its demise in "Every Hour of Light and Dark" by Nancy Kress. Two hundred years after Earthbound humans have killed themselves off, what's left of them reside on the moon where a scientific project is being conducted to rescue humanity's artistic heritage from the past. While intriguing for its time travel elements, the real pull of the story is in the portrayal of its flawed protagonist who finds himself in way over his head in life and mistakes. "Stories for Men" by John Kessel is another superb story, this one about a matriarchal lunar colony and a young man who becomes a rebellious activist. If Kessel's world building or the anticipation of wondering what will happen next doesn't grab you, the drive-by thought provoking passages will. Ian McDonald's "The Fifth Dragon" (set in his Luna universe) explores the complex relationship of two women on the way to the moon to become immigrant workers. There's some great world building here as well as a portrayal of the rough sacrifices the harsh environment of the moon requires, but the story excels at describing the relationship of Adriana and Achi. Twenty more wonder-filled stories round out this remarkable anthology.
The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4 edited by Neil Clarke
Clarke's second recent anthology is The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4, an annual tome delivering outstanding stories from the previous year. One of his picks—"Theories of Flight" by Linda Nagata, which is set in the world of her novel Memory—is an interesting, if not completely described, artificial world where people called players are reborn and deadly silver rises up to reshape the world. (Is it a simulation with the characters existing in a computer's memory? A video game from the perspective of the programmed characters?) Nevertheless, the story at the forefront—that of Yaphet and the never-ending scientific curiosity which drives him, like Icarus, to invent a flying machine—is compelling. Another fine story is Yoon Ha Lee's unique entry, "Entropy War," which reads like an instruction manual for a game on how a species can survive the universal tug of war between Order vs. Entropy, authored by a race that beat the system with a unique, albeit questionable, solution.
The Year's Top Robot and AI Stories, First Annual Collection edited by Allan Kaster
Another worthwhile themed anthology is Allan Kaster's The Year's Top Robot and AI Stories, First Annual Collection, featuring a dozen sf stories. One fun story is Annalee Newitz's Pinocchio-eque "The Blue Fairy's Manifesto", in which a flying drone called Blue Fairy infects a toy-building robot named RealBoy with malware that gives it free will. The persuasive Blue Fairy is attempting to coerce RealBoy into a proposed robot uprising against the humans that suppress them. RealBoy has enough sense and compassion to argue for choice over blind obedience...all of which is a great way to use science fiction as a vehicle for showing us that social change is a difficult process.
The Complete Short Stories of Mike Carey by Mike Carey
The Complete Short Stories of Mike Carey is a collection of eighteen immersive stories that, genre-wise, are all over the literary map. It contains lots of gems including the riveting story that was the basis for the novel and film The Girl with All the Gifts. Another, one of the three zombie stories, is "In That Quiet Earth." Written as a tribute story to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, it mimics the film's emphasis on personal story over surviving the zombie apocalypse. Here, a recently widowed scientist sees the zombie uprising as a way to ease his pain. It serves as an example that any kind of story can pack an emotional punch. "The Demon in the Well" is the fable-like tale of a woman who, forced to appease a demon to alleviate her village's water shortage, must contend with the consequences. The transition of the main character, Arinak, from the self-described "vain and empty-headed" person she was to the smart and powerful woman she becomes is impressive. Meanwhile, the smile-inducing short "Take Two" is a tongue-in-cheek look at an alternative Garden of Eden where modern discourse and attitudes, cleverly depicted as a kind of office comedy, overlap with the Many Worlds theory of Quantum physics...all told from the perspective of the snake, a temp hired by God.
The Big Book of Classic Fantasy edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's audacious anthology The Big Book of Classic Fantasy can appear daunting on first sight. Clocking in at more than 800 pages, it's a roughly chronological survey of 90 fantasy stories originally written between 1800 and 1940. That's a lot of years to cover and, as they explain in their introduction and when they spoke with Kirkus Reviews, they were meticulous about what they included. The result in an incredible timeline of fantasy fiction for that period, showcasing the breadth of the genre. Also, despite containing some noticeable names such as Mary Shelly, Charles Dickens, and J. R. R. Tolkien, it brings attention to many infrequently-read writers. But make no mistake—the focus here is 100% on quality fiction. The size of the anthology means I'll be enjoying it for months to come as I pick-and-choose whatever stories suit my muse. My first trip through this massive book included "The Queen's Son" by German author Bettina von Arnim (written in 1808 and translated here be Gio Clairval), a short story about a queen who takes seven years to give birth to seven sons all at once. Though perhaps a bit unpolished by today's literary standards, it's to-the-point narrative nevertheless reads like a fairy tale about a mother's love for her missing son. "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti, the only poem in the anthology (composed in April 1859 and published in 1862) tells the cautionary story of two sisters, one who is enticed by (and succumbs to) a goblin selling fruit and the other who tries to save her from the resulting evil effects. "Talkative Domovoi" by Aleksandr Grin (1923, translated here by Ekaterina Sedia) is about a house spirit (the domovoi) who tells a visitor about the previous occupants of the home while unknowingly revealing a tryst in the process. "The Jewels in the Forest" by Fritz Leiber (1957, originally published as "Two Sought Adventure") is a hallmark of sword and sorcery fiction as it introduces readers to heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser who came to be featured in dozens of subsequent fantasy adventures. Here, the heroic duo, wielding sword and sling, embark on a quest to a tower purported to hold valuable treasure. The tower, or course, has other plans for our mighty heroes. Reading this classic adventure is like a microcosm of reading The Big Book of Classic Fantasy itself; it's a starting point for seeking out endless new adventures.
When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom
When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom is the second book in the Paperbacks From Hell series of classic horror reprints. It's actually a collection of two long pieces of short fiction from 1985: "When Darkness Loves Us" and "Beauty Is...", both of which embrace the darker side of humanity. "When Darkness Loves Us" is a harrowing story of a young, pregnant farm girl named Sally Ann Hixson, who is inadvertently trapped in an underground cave by her husband. Sally manages to survive by eating moss and slugs and eventually gives birth to a son, Clint. The story is about Sally Ann's survival, how she comes to accept her new life underground—which lasts for decades—and about trying to reconcile the changes that have occurred in the people around her when she eventually emerges. The horror evoked by the story leans heavily on unfortunate human circumstances rather than the supernatural (Sally Ann's ongoing discussions with the imagined ghost of a friend notwithstanding), but it's nevertheless a captivating depiction of the human soul turning towards darkness. "Beauty Is..." is another story that favors the human condition over the supernatural. In it, we meet Martha, a developmentally disabled woman who was born without a nose. We also meet, in an alternating story line, Martha's parents, Harry and Fern. Harry and Fern start their lives together in a small town as farmers. Soon, Fern realizes that she possesses a miraculous healing power, which she uses to heal people around town. The townspeople are thankful, but Harry has trouble dealing with it and becomes distant. Making matters worse is when their daughter is born deformed, which Harry feels is God's punishment for Fern using her godlike powers to change lives—an excuse he uses to become an abusive father. What's impressive about this story is how its two alternating narratives evoke so many emotions in the reader: tragedy over Martha's story; sadness for her mother's trials; heartbreak at her innocence; disdain for the people who try to use her; and shock over the final scene. Put it all together and it makes for a powerful story.
American Gothic Short Stories (Gothic Fantasy)
Flame Tree Publishing continues to impress with their Gothic Fantasy short story series, a collection of themed anthologies in deluxe hardback editions that gathers fiction from both classic and modern writers. Besides looking great on a shelf, these anthologies are densely packed with lots of great fiction. American Gothic Short Stories, for example, includes 53 gothic horror stories set in America. "The Tomb Herd" by Ramsey Campbell is one such story. Its narrator travels to Kingsport Massachusetts to accept a job offer from a friend, then encounters cosmic horrors upon his arrival. Campbell's prose is pitch perfect Lovecraftian fiction that teases readers along the impending buildup of unease. Shirley Jackson's "My Uncle in the Garden" is less cosmic and more quaint. The narrator here visits her "uncles" out in the country. All seems normal except the two men are not quite family and they seemingly never age. It may have something to do with the devil that visits them.
Urban Crime Short Stories (Gothic Fantasy)
Urban Crime Short Stories is another new anthology in the Gothic Fantasy series, this one focusing on crime in urban settings, but containing some stories that overlap with elements of horror. "Ripping" by Meg Elison, for example, is a Jack the Ripper tale told from the perspective of a results-driven woman named Marla who performs abortions for the well-to-do. She is paid to hunt down the man who is killing destitute women around the Whitechapel district of 19th Century London. To do so, Marla poses as a prostitute, putting her own life at risk. She learns to handle herself quite well, in the process becoming a murderer as heartless as the villain she is hunting. Elison's writing here is sharp, tapping into themes of feminism, independence, and revenge while weaving an engrossing story that doesn't slow down one bit.
Song for the Unravelling of the World by Brian Everson
The titular story in Brian Everson's new collection Song for the Unravelling of the World is unsettling at the very least. The narrator is a father who realizes that his daughter is inexplicably gone; inexplicable because he has taken extra precautions to make sure the house is locked up tight. He searches everywhere for her; all around the house and the surrounding streets, but she is nowhere to be found. With minimal clues as to where she could be, the reader feels the same growing sense of dread as the father. But the story also reveals things that indicate that we don't quite have the whole picture. Why, for example, is he unable to go to the police? The lack of information given as the story unfolds only amplifies the sense of fear leaving the reader with lingering anxiety.
Cirsova Volume 2 #1, Spring 2019
Cirsova bills itself as a "magazine of thrilling adventure and daring suspense," a sentiment that is embodied in its lead story, "Halcyon" by Caroline Furlong. The backdrop of the story is an interstellar war between humans and the alien race known as the Gorgons, ape-like creatures that appear to be ruled by a scientific ruling class. The setting is the planet Halcyon, where a group of humans have been laboring in the mud pits of an open-air prison. The point-of-view characters are the humans Marin and Siobhan, respectively a soldier and a scientist, who make a daring escape in the opening scene. True to the magazine's promise, the story whisks along from one adventure to the next as the heroes encounter strange beasts and unlikely allies in a fun, serviceable story reminiscent of the science fantasy planetary adventures of yesteryear.
Kaleidotrope, Summer 2019
The summer issue of Kaleidotrope features an excellent story from Anthony R. Cardno titled "Regardless of How Lost You Are Returning From, Regardless of How Far." This is the story of a man who falls through a portal to another world and returns to find that decades have passed during the subjective year he has been away. The hand-wavy mechanism of interstellar travel evokes some of the early days of science fiction, but the bittersweet premise and resolution of the story remains timeless.