The unofficial theme for this quarterly roundup is “companion animals,” which is a term that really feels more appropriate than “pets.” It felt right to choose this theme at the end of a rough and trying year, and in the midst of a pandemic, when many of us have come to appreciate the animals in our lives even more than we did before, what with all the physical distancing and lockdowns depriving us of human company.
In each of these stories, a companion animal of some kind is a vital part of the tale. There are cats and dogs, of course, but also some more … unusual … companions.
“Magnificent Maurice, or the Flowers of Immortality” by Rati Mehrotra in Lightspeed
In a cottage between the twisting roots of the world tree (“Its branches bend spacetime, its cordate leaves uphold the laws of physics, and its tiny white flowers grant immortality”) lives a witch and Maurice, a (godlike) cat. Maurice has helped the witch defend the tree from those who would steal its flowers for a long time, but while he might be getting old, he is definitely not ready to give up his position as guardian to any of the new, younger cats at the cottage. That’s what Maurice thinks, anyway, at least until a woman from a distant planet comes climbing through the branches, looking for one of those flowers. A fantastic sci-fantasy tale with an outstanding feline cast of characters.
“Volumes” by Laura Duerr in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Julie Hoverson)
In a maybe not too distant post-apocalyptic future, where society has been rent asunder by radiation and oppression, Priya lives in an abandoned convenience store in the Cascade foothills with a whole bunch of cats, and a very secret basement full of outlawed books. Priya has done everything she can to stay alive and safe, and to keep her cats alive and safe too, and a big part of her strategy is staying very quiet and inconspicuous at all times. Then, a stranger comes knocking on her door, bringing with him all sorts of dangers, and Priya might have to risk everything she has for the sake of her cats, and a chance at something … different. A lovely, almost cozy, post-apocalyptic story with tea, books, cats, and even a sense of hope.
“Hope, Unrequested and Freely Given” by Brent Baldwin in Zooscape
Baroch is a sorcerer, and though he is getting old now and his powers are not what they once were, he still uses his magic once a year to summon a bird. It’s not just any bird, of course, but a bird who is really a woman named Valerie, the love of Baroch’s life. Once, Valerie and Baroch decided together to turn her into a bird in order to save her life, but now all Baroch wants is some time with her in her human form, before it’s too late. Baldwin’s tale is a powerful love story, and it’s about the hard choices that we may be forced to make in order to save the one we love, and ourselves.
“The Karyōbinga Sings to Jiro” by Ryu Ando in Strange Horizons
Jiro is living through the grief of losing his wife, going through the motions of living—preparing meals, drinking tea—while trying not to succumb to despair. At the same time, his son is trying to convince him to move away from the small, dying community where Jiro has lived his whole life. After Jiro finds an egg that mysteriously hatches during the night, he is visited (and comforted) by a strange bird that calls to him in the darkness; it’s a bird with eyes that seem much too familiar. This is a beautiful, gentle story about sorrow and grief and finding a way through the darkness, even if you can’t leave that darkness completely behind.
“The Starship and the Temple Cat” by Yoon Ha Lee in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
In this story, the companion animal is a cat and a ghost, haunting an old, ruined space station called The City of High Bells. Even in death, the cat goes about its cat business, and when the space station is visited by the starship Spectral Lance with the brutal Fleet Lords following in its wake, the cat is ready to put up a fight. Yoon Ha Lee writes a wonderful, moving story that shows how cats, even ghost cats, really are the best and most obnoxious creatures.
“Dog Years” by Ace Tilton Ratcliff in Fireside
I do love a good dog story, and this is the best kind of dog story—the kind that twists your soul and makes your heart ache. It’s about an old dog facing the end of its days, and about a human who is ready to do anything, anything, to buy some more time with their animal companion. This poignant exploration of the bond between dogs and humans and had me in tears by the end, but it is a good cry. Note: even if you don't like reading about dogs in peril, this story is worth checking out.
“What the Sea Reaps, We Must Provide” by Eleanor R. Wood in Diabolical Plots
A brilliant piece of flash fiction about a town by the sea where a yearly sacrifice is needed to placate the ocean. That knowledge weighs heavily on the reader’s mind as one of the townspeople is walking their two dogs by the water’s edge, one dog chasing a ball, the other dog lagging behind. I was at the edge of my seat by the end, and I think you might be, too.
“Dispo and the Crow” by Rich Larson in Mythic Delirium
In this moving, and quietly devastating, story, a bold and brash crow (are there any other kinds of crows? probably not) becomes the companion animal of a robot. The robot is working hard to come to terms with its purpose and mission in a grim, post-apocalyptic world when it encounters the crow—an encounter that changes them both. Larson’s story breaks my heart in a multitude of ways, and the way it builds the relationship between bird and machine is a thing of beauty.
“Ahura Yazda, the Great Extraordinary” by Senaa Ahmad in Lightspeed
In Ahmad’s lyrical and soul-shattering story, we meet not one, but a whole menagerie of companion animals. Ahura Yazda is a Persian trickster now living in Canada with his wife and children. In his barn live many strange and magical beasts that have followed the trickster across the world, including a shadhavar, a creature that dreams perilous dreams. Ahmad’s prose is a magic all its own, and this story is so good it takes my breath away. One of the best short fiction pieces I’ve read in recent years.
“Save, Salve, Shelter” by Essa Hansen in F&SF January/February 2020
In a future where Earth has been devastated by environmental change and disease, the last remnants of humanity are leaving the planet, looking to make a home elsewhere in the solar system. Hoping to recreate Earth’s flora and fauna, they are also bringing genetic samples with them into exile. One of the people tasked with gathering such samples is a young woman called Pasha. Pasha doesn’t just gather samples, however. She also gathers the few living animals she finds and carries them with her, hoping to save them. And while Pasha wanders the ravaged landscape, desperately searching for a spaceship that will accept her and her feral companions, both she and the animals are changing in unexpected and unsettling ways. This is one of the strangest and one of the most profound post-apocalyptic stories I’ve read in recent years.
“The Poet and the Spider” by Cynthia So in Anathema
In So’s exquisite and uniquely imagined tale, a poet with her mind set on impressing an empress seeks, and receives, creative assistance from a spider. More precisely, she receives help from a Spider Sister by the name of “the Spider of Bruises and Plums.” The Spider Sisters are “known lovers of rhythm and metre, and strict critics,” and the Spider of Bruises and Plums becomes the Poet’s literary mentor (obviously a next-level companion animal). I won’t reveal more but suffice it to say that this story is an intricately woven delight.
“Mother Ocean” by Vandana Singh in Current Futures
“In the ocean, Paro sometimes forgets she’s human.” So begins Vandana Singh’s deep and poignant tale, about Paro who loves to swim in the ocean, and who learns to understand, and speak to, a whale. Taken from the online anthology Current Futures, this is a tale about environmental destruction, but also about hope and about a profound and unexpected connection between two species. (By the way, if you haven’t read Vandana Singh’s short story collection Ambiguity Machines, it is also a must-read.)
If you’re looking for more short stories (even if they don’t feature companion animals), there are a lot of great short fiction collections and anthologies to choose from, but in this roundup, I want to shine a light on two in particular, both published in 2020:
Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
This fantastic SFF anthology covers the entire speculative fiction spectrum from fantasy and science fiction to horror, and it includes stories by several of my favourite writers, including Mame Bougouma Diene and Suyi Davies Okungbowa. Here, you’ll find stories of a robot suffering through an existential crisis, a time-traveling father and son, and a tale of what happens when the Goddess of Vengeance pays a visit to the US midwest. If you want a sample of what awaits you, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki's post-apocalyptic novella “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” from the anthology is available online.
Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, edited by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn
I read this anthology after listening to Elaine Cuyegkeng’s harrowing and fabulous “The Genetic Alchemist’s Daughter” at PseudoPod. It features stories by Nadia Bulkin, Rin Chupeco, Rena Mason, Christina Sng, and many other outstanding writers who explore, dissect, embrace, and reject the traditional roles often given to Southeast Asian women in fiction and mainstream popular culture. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone with a taste for dark speculative fiction.
Finally, I have a hot tip for those who might have made a resolution to read more speculative fiction in the new year. Right now is a great time to pick up a magazine subscription! Subscriptions help support the writers and publications that bring you the fiction you love. Plus, it’s a convenient way to add some heft to your TBR pile! You can check out each zine’s website for ways to snag a subscription (some zines offer subscriptions through their Patreon page, for example). For digital subscriptions, you can also head over to Weightless Books.