My themes for this short fiction roundup are time travel, alternate universes, and portal fantasies. As a reader and as a writer, I’ve always loved stories with magical doorways to other worlds, time-travel shenanigans, and multiverses where other versions of us might have turned out very differently than we did.
For this roundup, I’ve picked twelve short stories that deal with these themes and tropes in a variety of ways, and I’ve also thrown in two novels for good measure.
“Russian Rhapsody” by Forrest Brazeal in Abyss & Apex
This is a portal fantasy of sorts, though the portal is not a physical object; rather, the act of playing music is what transports you to another world. In the Soviet Union, Yuriy, a young pianist, learns how to play the piano. One day, he finds himself mysteriously transported into “the zone,” a different world, by his own music. He describes it to his piano teacher: “I heard the whole piece, the Fantasia, all at once […] All the notes swam in front of me like beautiful fish […] It wasn’t a feeling. It was a place—a place without any time.”
Yuriy eventually learns how to enter the zone at will, and even shares his secret with the woman he loves (who also ends up being his musical rival). Sharing his knowledge has consequences, and once the true nature of the zone is revealed to Yuriy, things turn tragic. Brazeal brilliantly captures the way music feels and sounds, how it feels to play it, and how you can find power and even a form of transformative magic in the act of playing and listening to an instrument.
“Otherwhen” by Zandra Renwick in Fusion Fragment #5
Renwick’s time-travel story is so good I haven’t stopped thinking about it since reading it. A car accident has put Elizabeth right in the midst of an ongoing worldwide phenomenon: Displaced people from other points in the timeline are popping into the world unexpectedly, in unexpected places. The “Chrono-Affected” sometimes disappear almost instantly, but some of them linger before disappearing, and no one can make sense of why it’s happening or what they’re trying to achieve, if anything. I love the down-to-earth, quietly strange vibe of this story, which takes place in an everyday world of more or less regular people. I also love how Renwick winds the story tighter and tighter as Elizabeth tries to figure out what her connection might be to all of this.
“Different People” by Timothy Mudie in Lightspeed
In Mudie’s story, a number of “refugees from a destroyed parallel Earth” suddenly appear in our world. Their world seems to have been destroyed by an unknown disaster, and the refugees try to settle down and build new lives. They are not supposed to go looking for the other version of themselves in this world, and they’re not really supposed to go looking for the versions of the people they knew and loved in the old world either. In spite of this, a woman named Rachel knocks on the narrator’s door and introduces herself: “Have you met me?” she asks without preamble. “You’re my husband.” Soon, they’re married.
This is a love story, of sorts, but a love story that is both unsettling and increasingly ominous. Rachel is a quantum physicist and gets a job working for the government, and bit by bit, we realize that her motives for finding her “husband,” and for going to work for the government, might not be all benign. This devastating and unsettling story explores ideas of fate, love, and if we are at all able to change who we are, or if we always end up making the same mistakes, over and over.
“Advanced Word Problems in Portal Math” by Aimee Picchi in Daily SF
Penny spends her life trying to find a portal to another world, a world better suited to her, a world where she can be what she wants to be, a world where the people around her might even appreciate and support her. She uses portal math, trying to calculate where such an escape hatch might be found, but even though she is very good at doing the math, the portal eludes her through the years. She is also worn down by the demands and expectations and put-downs from others, including her parents and husband. Picchi tells us the story of Penny’s life and quest in pieces, where every piece comes with its own math problem, and we soon understand just how thoroughly this world keeps letting Penny down. A fierce story with a brilliant ending.
“Lady Fortune” by Archita Mittra in Anathema
In this subtle and lyrical story, a fortune-teller reads tarot cards at a fairground. She and her daughter are part of a traveling circus, and at the end of the day, a woman appears outside her tent, reluctant to enter. “You have seen her kind before. You do not hasten to invite her in.” Once the woman plucks up her courage to come inside the tent and her cards are read, we realize that this is a crucial moment in her life. A quiet but powerful story from a terrific issue of Anathema.
“Pull” by Leah Ning in Podcastle (narrated by Graeme Dunlop)
“I could already feel her mind tugging at mine from upstairs, a warm, familiar pull that threatened to separate me from my body. Are you there? the pull seemed to ask. Are you coming back?”
A husband is caring for his dying wife who is slowly losing her memories and her sense of reality. The complicating factor is that the wife has a magical ability: she can pull other people's minds into her own mind, bringing them into her memories and thoughts—a kind of portal magic all her own. As her mind and body deteriorate, she is losing control over how and when she uses her magic, and the reality she creates inside her mind is becoming more perilous. This is very much a love story, playing out at the end of a person's life, and though the ultimate choices made by the husband might be troubling on one level, there’s so much compassion and affection permeating the tale.
“12 Worlds Interrupted by the Drone” by Fargo Tbakhi in Strange Horizons
“There was and there was not a world in which every person walked backwards. They did this in order to preserve their relationship to the past, which they knew from birth was sacred.”
In twelve alternate worlds, the Drone interrupts the life and everyday existence of the inhabitants. Every world is different, though the same characters appear in different iterations in each. In each world, the drone’s appearance brings about despair, destruction, and violence, without reason or justification. Tbakhi’s story is enigmatic and harrowing, and the voice of it, its bleak matter-of-factness mixed with quiet devastation, gives it significant emotional heft.
“Kaleidoscope” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia in Constelación Magazine (first published in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, 2014)
A gorgeously crafted, shattering story about lives intersecting in different timelines, in different universes. Things play out differently in these different worlds and times and places, and yet the echoes of emotions and actions reverberate through all the iterations. There's a delicate, lyrical beauty to the prose and the structure of this story, yet the tale beneath that beauty is sharp, glinting like bone and teeth.
“Prism” by S. D. Brown in Augur Magazine
“Prism” weaves in and out of the past, the present, and the future, dipping into horror and darkest fantasy. And while there are portals here, they might not lead to fantasy worlds or happy endings. What makes this story about a woman who loses her child while she is in prison so devastating is how real it all feels: a childhood marked by death and trauma, by being an outsider, and blighted by a mother who seems beyond reach. Brown skillfully blends the everyday world with strands of mind-bending strangeness, creating an unnerving, evocative, and unforgettable tale.
“Beldame” by Nickolas Furr in Diabolical Plots
Furr's story is a thoroughly delightful take on portal fantasies. What would you do if you found yourself standing before a door that could take you to another world? This is exactly what happens, quite unexpectedly, to the protagonist of this story, when he gets off at a bus stop in a small town in Kansas, "where all the houses faced west and I met the whispery old crone who sat at the intersection of two worlds." His choice, and how he deals with that choice, puts a very human, real-world twist on the fantasy.
Two stories from the last few years that fit right into this theme deserve special mention because they are so good that they are already classics in the genre, at least as far as I’m concerned:
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow in Apex won the Hugo and the Nebula for best short story in 2019, and it’s an absolute marvel of a tale about the magic of libraries and books and librarians.
“And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker in Uncanny Magazine turns an interdimensional Sarah Pinsker convention (SarahCon), where all the participants come from alternate timelines, into a sci-fi/murder mystery that can only be solved by insurance investigator Sarah Pinsker. (This one is a trip.)
Even though my focus here is on short fiction, I want to recommend two novels that also fit perfectly into this theme:
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley is a stunning science fiction thriller that subverts the military SF genre and is also one of the best, most intricately crafted time-travel stories I’ve ever read.
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson is a highly original, thoroughly gripping novel about multiverse travel. It's enriched, and sharpened by, deft worldbuilding and incisive social commentary.