For this Short Fiction Treasures column, the theme is quite simply, “science fiction,” and one of my favorite flavors of science fiction is the far-future space adventure where we explore an interstellar society through the lens of a personal, character-driven story.
Owen Leddy’s “Old Seeds” in GigaNotoSaurus, is an outstanding example of such a story. It’s set in a far-off future where humanity is being slowly phased out by a company-conglomerate of AIs and machines. Faced with a life of debts and poverty, Ren has sold xir life to earn a better future for the two children xe has left behind back home. After traveling through space in stasis for over one hundred years, Ren wakes in orbit around a terraformed exoplanet. Ren’s mission is to help the planet’s AI maximize crop yields and solve unforeseen problems, but nothing turns out quite as Ren expected. Soon, xe finds strange things growing in the fields and what comes next might elicit a violent response from the machine overlords. There’s a depth and richness to Leddy’s world, and to Ren as a character, that makes this story a joy to read. Ren's memories and regrets are woven into the story of what is taking place in the universe at large, and on this specific planet, in a way that makes the story both gripping and powerful.
“Patterns In Stone and Stars” by M. V. Melcer, also from GigaNotoSaurus, is another rich and beautifully layered science fiction story. It takes place in a spacefaring universe shaped by ongoing interstellar conflicts. Here we meet Szkazy, a scientist from a disparaged minority group within the Aolian Federation. Szkazy is tasked with deciding if a mysterious native species on a planet of great strategic importance qualifies as an intelligent lifeform or not. In the process, she must confront complex personal, political, and scientific issues, while trying to hold on to her own values and cultural heritage, and maybe find a different way forward.
Encounters with aliens, and how we might communicate (or miscommunicate) with other sentient beings, can make for captivating science fiction.
In “The Thousand Tongues of Sara” by Jonathan Olfert in The Future Fire, we meet a pachyderm named Sara. She is part of a diplomatic delegation from Earth that is now traveling on a gigantic spaceship while negotiating a treaty with an alien society called the Gesht. Sara has been brought along as a representative of Earth’s only other surviving sapient species, but she is not treated as an equal participant in the negotiations and has been confined to her quarters. Homesick and bored, Sara gets out of her room with the help of Hobbie, her translation unit/robot, and suddenly finds herself walking through the ship’s sprawling interstellar marketplace. Olfert explores language and interspecies communication in an intriguing and entertaining way, and I loved Sara’s ingenuity, her determination, and her curiosity about alien cuisine.
Food and interspecies communication also play an important part in “This Excessive Use of Pickled Foods” by Leora Spitzer in khōréō, a wonderful science fiction story about the strong link between food and memories. It’s also something of a homage to pickles. When Bex, a human, arrives at Konkarken space station, strange things happen when she tries the local pickled foods. And when she introduces a new alien acquaintance to pickles, it turns out that sharing food can foster friendship and deeper mutual understanding.
There is little room for friendship in the alien/human encounter in “The Sufficient Loss Protocol” by Kemi Ashing-Giwa at TOR.com. Commander Uzoma Ifiok lives in a universe riven by interplanetary rivalries and conflicts, where competing clanomies and corporations vie for supremacy and profit. Fair warning: Ifiok is an unscrupulous, highly unlikable character who carries out the most despicable orders without much hesitation or regret. Ifiok’s confidence (and arrogance) are put to the test when an alien entity of a most peculiar and dangerous kind gets on board, seemingly with nothing but murder and mayhem on their mind, and from that point, things take a surprising and perilous turn. I liked the unusual twists and turns of this story, and I liked the audacity of telling it through such an unlikeable protagonist.
I’ve read a lot of excellent near-future science fiction recently, including the fierce and formidable “Rabbit Test” by Samantha Mills in Uncanny Magazine. It’s a furiously sharp tale of one woman’s fate in a future United States where the government has criminalized abortion and restricted access to contraceptives. “Rabbit Test” is science fiction, but it’s also an illuminating history lesson about abortion and reproductive rights, and it’s fueled by anger, resistance, and hope.
“The Pill” by Meg Elison is another brilliant near-future sci-fi story. It was originally published in Elison’s collection Big Girl and won the Locus Award for best novelette in 2021. It is now available at Escape Pod (narrated by Sandy Parsons). “The Pill” is a dark and disturbing, and at times darkly funny, tale about what happens to a fat young woman, her fat family, and eventually to the whole world, when a new diet pill that actually works (though not without cost) comes on the market. There are so many things to love about this story, including Elison’s incisive social commentary, her sharp eye for the family dynamics at play here; and the moments, toward the end, of dizzying sensual pleasures.
Near-future SF blends with climate fiction in “The Bright in the Gyre” by Nadine Aurora Tabing in Reckoning. Here, plastic trash is clogging and destroying Earth’s oceans, while microplastics are clogging and destroying human bodies, including the body of Cora, our protagonist. Hope exists in this world, though it seems slim and almost out of reach, but it’s there in Cora’s research on fungi that can digest humanity’s non-degradable waste, and in the existence of new societies floating on the ocean’s surface, their dwellings built from discarded garbage. The future might seem bleak in this story, but its focus on the hope we might find in each other, and in science, gives it an edge that cuts through the despair.
L. D. Lewis’s compelling “Last Stand of the E. 12th St. Pirates” in Lightspeed, set in a city reshaped by rising waters, also deals with challenges and conflicts arising from climate change. In the city’s Flood District, Dee and Bobby deliver packages to residents, eking out a living in the shadow of the big-time corporate player, Amazon. When some residents turn to pirates to raid Amazon’s vessels, the company gets ready to strike back. Lewis hooked me from the first paragraph to the last and left me wanting more.
“The Lifers” by Erin Innes in Strange Horizons is set farther into the future, in a time when Earth has become uninhabitable while Mars has been terraformed to harbor human life. Researchers still return to Earth to study it, and some of them are puzzled by why the environment isn’t showing the expected signs of recovery. It’s a haunting story with a mystery at its heart. Why do some of the researchers decide to stay on Earth? Why don’t they return to the safety of Mars? The answer is not obvious, but we feel the presence of something unseen, and maybe a hidden hope, just out of sight and reach.
If you enjoy dystopian/post-apocalyptic science fiction (I definitely do), look no further than “Excuse Me, This Is My Apocalypse” by Amy Johnson at Escape Pod (narrated by Christiana Ellis). Johnson weaves a good measure of dark, deliciously snarky humor into this story of a personal apocalypse gone awry. A woman has created her own personal, virtual post-apocalyptic landscape and is enjoying the solitude there as the last person on Earth. That is, until a whole host of people start showing up on her server, even though they shouldn't be able to get in there at all. I love how exasperated and even angry this makes the apocalypse’s creator, and I love the way the darkness from the real world eventually creeps into the virtual landscape. What makes this story cut deep is the sense of humanity, and community, beneath the laughs.
I won’t even try to describe the profoundly surreal and ominous “Dog Song,” but I will say that it starts out as a set of instructions on how to determine whether dogs still exist: “So you want to determine whether dogs still exist. First, our association of dogs with obedience. Is obedience dog-like? Or is it to do with horses now, or children, or hamsters… Or maybe they don’t exist, dogs have never existed.” I felt somewhat bewildered (in a good way) as I started reading this story, but the reason for the strangeness becomes clearer in the telling (or does it?) as we glimpse the new role dogs might play in this future.
The gloriously weird and unsettling “Sharp Undoing” is set after an event referred to as the Undoing. The cause of the Undoing was the discovery of the “Slot Protocol” which has enabled people to “slot” others, consuming their memories and knowledge in a way that is, frankly, terrifying. In the wake of the Undoing, society and humanity is tearing itself apart: “A mind hungers just like a body. The world got its hands on a knife and ate itself alive.” For our narrator and protagonist (who is an amalgam of memories and slotted personalities) the slotting doesn’t seem to work quite as advertised and the story slowly reveals the intriguing reasons for that.
Another highly original take on the apocalypse is “Ten Steps for Effective Mold Removal” by Derrick Boden in Apex. This story of a mysterious mold that invades everything, and the apocalyptic pandemic that (maybe) follows, is told in a series of online product reviews. It’s an ingenious storytelling device for a tale that is by turns heartbreaking, hilarious, and terrifying.
Speaking of strange and uniquely told tales, one of the best science fiction stories I’ve read recently is “WE” by Phoenix Alexander in The Deadlands:
“WE, with base of Ornithischia, machine-molded and encasing intelligence, run to keep the beloved ones alive
WE: bird-hipped, yes, bird-fierce, mottle-fleshed, streaks on strips of whirling rubber that are the million treadmills that power this place, a place they thread the words “end-of-life care” through
WE, who run for those above, with the hope that they open their eyes again”
Structured like a prose poem, this story reveals a strange afterlife where new bodies await the minds that have “chosen to run.” Alexander brings together the realities of end-of-life care, where people are kept alive by machines, with the thrilling ferocity and energy of those who run to power those machines, and who inhabit an afterlife I certainly had never imagined before.
For a different kind of science fiction strangeness, check out the mind-bending “Toronto Isn't Real and Other Metropolitan Anomalies” by A. D. Sui in Augur Magazine, a riveting story that blends the idea of alternate realities and a multiverse, with the scientific (and Matrix-y) question of whether we live in a simulation or not. In the Toronto of the story, we meet Thea who has not been doing well since her friend Sandra jumped off a bridge. Sandra believed that reality was a simulation and even thought she could prove it. Impossible, of course, Thea tells herself (though she does wonder), until she gets a mysterious text message from the supposedly dead Sandra. That message, and the ones that follow, has Thea searching for the answers behind Sandra’s hints and clues. I love the way this story creeps into your head and makes you wonder about the nature of your own reality.
My final gem in this Short Fiction Treasures column is “On the Way Home” by Laine Perez in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a beautifully crafted story that skirts the line between fantasy and science fiction into science fantasy territory. Perez begins by introducing us to the characters, their relationships, and the world they inhabit in a masterfully written opening paragraph:
“May and Mama Ruth had always lived on the edge of Fenn, near the Gyre river. Their only neighbor was George, the bot repairman. He lived alone in a small red house and had a daughter who had left and never come back. Mama Ruth brought him produce from her garden, eggs from her chickens, and apples from her trees in exchange for the pleasure of speaking with him in a language May did not know.”
This is a subtle, deeply moving story where much is told in quiet moments, in things both said and unsaid. When I read it, it gave me that warm and comforting feeling you might get from a cup of tea (or a bowl of soup) on a cold day. It's a story about friendship and kindness, about how we make and unmake our lives, and how we can, if we make the effort, take care of ourselves and others and build a better life in the process.
Editor: Amanda Jean
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department