Short and Sublime is a new column spotlighting great short fiction.
January stories include optimistic sci-fi tales, feminist subversions of problematic tropes in fantasy, and creatures from mythologies both real and imagined.
Don’t get close, or you will smell.
Here she comes, go run and tell.
Her mama casts them voodoo spells.
Take your Haitian tail to Hell!
Malon Edwards’ “The Half-Dark Promise” (Shimmer Magazine #23) is about a Haitian-American girl with a steamclock heart who turns her disability into her armor and who’s accompanied by one badass sword named Tonton Macoute. The story draws a relationship between childhood bullies and the monsters in the “half-dark” who prey on lone children who don’t know how to “tell it like it is.” Rhythmic chanting and the use of consonance and assonance throughout the narrative are reminiscent of folk tales and oral literature, and this genre-bender in which dark fantasy meets steampunk is one I can’t wait to be recorded on a podcast.
“Headwater, LLC” by Sequoia Nagamatsu (Lightspeed #56) deals with the cruelty of adolescence instead and merges it with the cruelty of exploitative capitalism. The story travels back and forth through time, punctuated with headings from a corporate manual, and is another such genre bender. Yoko befriends a Kappa (one of the Yokai, creatures from Japanese folklore), but the story begins later when both are trapped in a tragic dystopia.
For a happier dystopia, the future in “Ether” by Zhang Ran, a novelette translated by Carmen Yiling Nan and Ken Liu, (Clarkesworld #100) is characterized by its banality. The protagonist is liberated from his boring life of ennui, alcoholism, and a dearth of meaning by a chance encounter with a stranger. Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures, Please” (ibid.) is also optimistic science fiction in which the protagonist is a sentient, benevolent Internet search engine who uses its algorithms to try to help humans who are too hapless to help themselves — all in exchange for cat pictures.
“Bread of Life” by Cynthia McGean (Kaleidotrope, Winter 2015) is a subversive, metafictional fairytale. This story-within-a-story points out that the female villains in these tales — women who are older, or not conventionally attractive, or not well-liked — have their own stories in which they are the protagonists, and that it’s these “others” that are easily villainized in the first place. Another feminist deconstruction takes place in “Metamorphoses of Narcissus” by Tamara Vardomskaya (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #164), in which a beautiful dancer-cum-model initially only values herself as an object until war scatters civilization and forces her to become a subject. In this coming-of-age story in miniature, she transforms from groveling model into combat nurse and her own person.
Alix Harrow’s “Animal Women” (Strange Horizons, 12 January 2015) is a novelette that’s difficult to classify — is it magical realism or historical fantasy? — that takes place during the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960’s. Awkward protagonist Candis wishes for nothing more than to be a photojournalist, and her life takes a turn for the strange when she happens across five women who live together outside of town. This story takes an unflinching look at racism, homophobia, domestic violence — different faces of monsters that women must confront if they wish to live as masters of their own destinies.