2019 is over and done, but there’s still time to look back on what I think are December’s ten best science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories. A girl defies a fairytale, a child is interrogated, a mother and daughter travel back in time, a ghost haunts an immigrant, and more.
Aboard a space station, five musicians form a jazz band in a retro bar. Catherine George tells their story through vignettes about how some of their songs came to be. A sense of longing for a lost heritage weaves each piece together as the quintet learn to play an outmoded genre of music. “We all dreamed of things we’d never truly seen, never truly heard. Like the wind: in our dreams, we heard the wind, and the sound of birds, and we’d wake up with tears, our bodies remembering an impossible world.”
Clarkesworld – Issue 159, December 2019
An erotic story about a human detective and his encounters with an “ab-natural” creature. And I do mean “erotic.” There are cultists who have designs on the creature and a small mystery about the city that exists within the creature. This is not a traditional love story by any means, but it’s more than two people hooking up. Vina Jie-Min Prasad imbues their relationship, as unconventional as it is, with affection and connection, desire and interest. It wasn’t at all what I expected, much to my delight.
Uncanny Magazine – Issue 31, November/December 2019
Whew, this one really got to me. I’ve read some chilling horror stories this year, but few left me so unsettled that I had to take a break afterward. A boy’s mistake leads to his mother’s violent death, and no one ever lets him forget it. Not his brother who tortures him daily. Not his father who can barely look at him. Not his classmates who taunt him. And not the only friend he thinks he has. I recommend listening to the audio version of it read by Heath Miller. Perfectly discomfiting.
Pseudopod – #678, December 6, 2019
For the fourth month in a row, Foreshadow has landed a spot on this spotlight, this time with an alarming story about a young person trapped in a brutal interrogation. Captured in connection with people protesting and plotting against a corrupt government, it soon becomes clear that those questioning them will use every violent tactic to get the answers they want. Although dystopian fiction, “Confession” feels exceedingly relevant today.
Foreshadow – Issue 12, December 2019
“Some of you still carry that seed of fear in you, that infection of the instinct, the fear-of-death. Should you be found infected, you will need a place to go, would you not? Somewhere where you would be granted the chance to receive the cure.” Not far from a toxic factory lives a colony of mice. Those infected with fear are sent into the Converter of Time to be altered and made peaceful. Two sisters begin to question their society’s rules, and it doesn’t end up well for one of them.
Speculative City – Issue 6, Winter 2019
A sharp-edged, tear-stained story about a person whose distraught emotional state causes them to split in two. They are a binary pair, yet in key ways they are not. The original is nonbinary (xe/xir pronouns) but the copy is female (she/her pronouns), causing an even greater sense of unease in the first. What must if feel like to see yourself have everything you want but not in the way you want it, to know that to have the life you want you’d have to give up who you are?
Anathema – December 2019
“My Sisters and I await the next girl. She will be beautiful. We always are.” A twisted ghost story version of “Beauty and the Beast” where the girls kidnapped by the monster are killed when they fail to free him of his curse. Until one headstrong young woman decides to take matters into her own hands. Written more like a gothic haunted house story than a fairytale, Susan Taitel peels back the layers of romance to reveal the seething underbelly of the patriarchy.
Cast of Wonders – #387, December 22, 2019
When Liz and her daughter Sasha jump back to 1984, they don’t expect to meet Liz’s mother, the woman who invented the very time machine they just used. This short yet sweet story is brimming with heart. The future is not as bright as Grandma had hoped, but love has a way of breaking through.
Nature: Futures – December 18, 2019
What an endearing story about platonic love. Two search engines, one antiquated and largely forgotten about and the other speedy and technologically superior, find each other on a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom site. A friendship blooms in ones and zeros and algorithms until humans come along and ruin it with our greed and arrogance and general awfulness. The moral of the story: if someone tells you they prefer Riley over Angel and Spike, chances are they’re not human.
Future Science Fiction Digest – Issue 5, December 2019
Lily, a recent arrival to Australia from the Philippines, takes a boring office job and rents a shabby apartment. She “often feels as if she has to scale an invisible barrier whenever she interacts with people.” As prepared as she is for microaggressions, she is also wounded by familial expectations, burnout, and the exploitation of POC by capitalist societies. Guidance comes from an unexpected (and rather dead) source.
Fireside Fiction – Issue 74, December 2019
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.