Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. A few weeks back, we did a little spring sampler with some magazines I hadn’t look at before; it was good to peruse some fresh voices, too.
However, the special thing this month I’d like to look at is the next Queers Destroy issue at ol’ familiar Lightspeed—and this time the focus is on science fiction, so I was especially intrigued. These special issues are generally a lot of fun for the variety of work that they showcase that fits under the banner “queer,” the same way the previous instantiations showcased women writers in the field.
They’re also pretty hefty in size. There are thirteen stories available free online in this issue, alongside nonfiction—and about twice as much more available in the ebook/subscriber version. So, more or less this is the size of an anthology rather than just a regular magazine issue. For our purposes, I thought I’d take a look at a selection of the pieces available to read online: the first three released in the month and the last three, too.
Kate M. Galey’s “Emergency Repair” is the first story in the issue—and the author’s first published story, also—and it shows some hints of promise. The use of first-person point of view, directed to the “you” of the protagonist’s lover, makes avoiding pronouns easier, which is a nice trick; unfortunately it’s not quite a strong use. The narration is a repetitive and doesn’t necessarily maintain an authentic sense of voice—it reads like writing, rather than the thought-process of the protagonist it’s supposed to be. It could use to be trimmed down some, more streamlined and direct, and also to not repeat the same structure in the separate sections of the piece (action, observation, reflection on relationship). It makes the direct action seem to take a remarkably long time instead of being the brief burst of activity we know it actually is.
Then another story about cyborgs, John Chu’s “勢孤取和 (Influence Isolated, Make Peace).” This one is set in a postwar America and deals with a squad of cyborgs and their eventual fate: be dismantled under a peace treaty, or escape into the world and try to pass as human. The protagonist forms a relationship with Tyler, who is one of the military’s other projects—Organics, designed to be the stopping force against cyborgs—and in the end, he helps Jake and his squad escape. It’s a sort of meandering story, structured primarily around games of Go and a delicate early-stage relationship between two men who are more than men. I thought it was a more nuanced treatment of the cyborg concept than Galey’s preceding story, though some of the exposition here felt a little simplified or over-familiar; the main focus being the relationship, the contextual background was a little less fleshed out. I did appreciate the small details, though, like the cyborgs being able to tweak their brain chemistry and the way that Jake sometimes remembers little flashes of his previous life.
“Bucket List Found in the Locker of Maddie Price, Age 14, Written Two Weeks Before the Great Uplifting of All Mankind” by Erica L. Satifka comes next. It’s a flash piece, and a good one. It takes the form of a list, obviously, some lines of which are crossed out and some of which aren’t. The underlying story is about Maddie falling in love with her best friend Sandra, and Sandra not feeling the same way; the overlying one is about humanity being taken up to the Sing, what seems to be a hive-consciousness that will probably depopulate Earth entirely. I think both arcs are sparse but given enough weight to have meaning—it’s a nice brief punch of feeling, especially with the last two lines:
Go one whole day without being scared of anything.
Forgive Sandra for not loving me back.
Then we have our last three stories for the month, the first of which is “The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red Red Coal” by Chaz Brenchley (which has some very nice cover art). This is some good ol’ fashioned historical-sf: here we have a late-Victorian Mars colony, where the disgraced Mr. Wilde (going by Holland) has arrived to live. A government man approaches the group, wondering if the bond between queer men will be enough to allow them to use a strange process to communicate with the imagos—the native denizens of Mars, it seems—mind to mind, in a way that the average straight man can’t seem to manage. It doesn’t, necessarily, go well.
A lot of folks like to write Wilde stories; I prefer the ones, like this, that offer him not as protagonist but side-character, a sort of structuring point to arrange the tone and focus of the narrative around. His presence in the tale gives the reader a sense of time and context: that this is a different world than ours in more ways than one. I do wish, though I enjoyed reading this one, that the ending had been a bit less abrupt; rather than feeling it as a sort of narrative crescendo, it seemed to lose balance with the rest of the story.
“Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar is my favorite of this bunch. A woman enters a clinical trial for Alzheimer’s prevention medication after her mother’s death from the disease; she begins having powerful flashbacks to her past memories, then seeing another girl there who always matches her age and whom she bonds with. Her doctor thinks she needs to be hospitalized, so she is; however, it turns out the girl is real, is another woman from the trial, and they’ve fallen for each other. The narrative structure is rather straightforward, given that it involves a lot of time dislocation, and I think that it works well for this kind of story: people meet, people bond, people want to be together instead of alone. The trappings of memory, of philosophy, of loss and growth, are the stuff that fleshes this out into a strongly evocative piece. (Personally, the thought of using critical theory to dislocate oneself also just—made so much sense.)
“Red Run” by A.M.J. Hudson is the last of the free online stories, a reprint. It’s an odd note to end on—a young woman giving up her life and body in a swap to an older woman who wants to be young again, because she’s depressed and doesn’t want to live any more. I actually ended up with more questions than answers by the end, though: for example, since depression is a disease and generally physical in nature, wouldn’t that make Hinahon a bad candidate to donate her body to someone else? And why are they destroying her disc of “self” instead of uploading it into Leigh’s body? I don’t quite get why the suicide thing is a thing at all, here, instead of just “escaping into someone else’s life” for both of these women. The logic problems made it even harder to connect with the story, which is already—being a story about a depressed queer woman killing herself—not exactly an easy in. I was a little surprised at choosing this for the reprint to appear as free online content for the magazine, honestly, out of the rest of the options in the full issue.
Overall, the quality in Queers Destroy Science Fiction does range broadly, as the editors made a distinct effort, it seems, to include more writers who haven’t been published (or haven’t been published much) previously. I have to say that I’m pleased by that inclusion of new voices and different approaches, even if it’s not always amazing reading. There’s something to be said for all-star, knock-it-out-of-the-park collections and magazine issues, but there’s also a pleasure to be found in discovering other folks whose work is still developing too. I had fun with this special issue, and I’d advise picking up a subscription copy too; there are a lot more stories in that version, some of which are also very good.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.