From life-altering arithmetic to myths made real, from cannibal butchers to mechanical surgeons, from fading romance to self-discovery, January was a strong month for speculative short fiction. Here are ten of the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories out of a very crowded field.
I adored this short story as much as I hate math, which is to say a whole helluva lot. Structured around complex math problems, Aimee Picchi tells the story of a girl named Penny who dreams of escaping her life. For years she searches for a portal to another world, but she’s really looking for a way out of the meager existence she’s been confined to since a child. Will she spend the rest of her life waiting or will she take action and make a world of her own? You’ll have to answer all four math problems correctly to find out…
Daily Science Fiction—January 3, 2020
In which a girl who wants retribution for the violence she barely survived and finds a way to take it. The zombie apocalypse is over and everyone tries to go back to the way it was before. But Hannah can’t move on. The raveners took her parents, infant sibling, and dog just like they slaughtered thousands of others. The Plague may be cured, but the after effects still reverberate. Hannah finds peace in the thunk of the blade against bone, in the wet chill of bloody meat between her fingers. She cannot, will not forget what was done to her.
Black Static—Issue 73, January/February 2020
In a future not too far from ours, our narrator works as a groundskeeper at a rural airport. The company who employs her, AeroFix, delivers mysterious, inscrutably labeled blue barrels every week. Through several vignettes we learn about the narrator’s past and present, the history of Evil Corp, and what happens when the company’s shady dealings hit too close to home. Connecting it all is a love story of sorts between the narrator and a company stooge. This isn’t a happy story or even a romantic one, or is it tragic or terrible. It meanders and explores, unfolding slowly then all at once until you can’t turn away.
Interzone—Issue 285, January/February 2020
“Here’s the reality, girl, girlfriend, goddess, goddamn goner: You’re gonna have to get out of hell all by yourself.” Is it too early to declare this one of the best short speculative fiction stories of 2020? Because holy hell is it incredible. It’s intense and demanding and heartbreaking and devastating. I can’t really review it without spoiling the premise, but the TL;DR is that it is rooted in Greek mythology and is deeply, powerfully, viciously feminist.
Tor.com—January 23, 2020
Scientists discover how to transplant consciousness into cyborgs, but only for the young. Which means while the next generation will be the first to live forever, the previous one is the last to die. The deathless shuttle the dying off onto a planet of islands—out of sight, out of mind. Until a cyborg made of glass arrives with her human charge. She brings technological chaos and emotional distress to the denizens, but also a sense of peace and stability. Rita Chang-Eppig’s story isn’t flashy or action-packed; instead it subtly examines theme after theme with a calm yet engaging tone.
Clarkesworld—Issue 160, January 2020
Where the hell has Soleil Knowles been all my life? “Lusca” is a tremendous story written by an extraordinary talent. With gorgeous prose that reads almost like a poem, Knowles weaves a tale about a girl forced to hide her true self. The world wants her to be a placid goldfish but she’s really a shark, a creature of teeth and destruction. She will never be ladylike or polite, no matter how many times a condescending principal corrects her language. She is power incarnate.
FIYAH—Issue 13, Winter 2020
“Many years from now, in a land far from here, two men will fall in love.” Mitchell Shanklin doesn’t start his love story from the beginning but from the middle. Those two men get married and keep a book that defines their lives and their marriage. John and Sammeth love each other, but they love the romantic versions of each other more. Each want the other to be the man they want, neither can truly accept the other as they are. With a clever conceit Shanklin explores the ways in which we change for the people we love, either by choice or force or circumstance.
Strange Horizons—January 6, 2020
“People have first memories of their childhood, fond memories, but all I had was this first truth, before any memory could settle in: my mother had a hunger she couldn’t control.” Clara Madrigano’s story is horror not of the jump scares and monsters in the closet kind but of the humans doing terrible things to each other for reasons only they can understand kind. The narrator’s mother is anything but motherly. As she grows up and learns of the acts of violence her mother perpetrated on others, she cannot forgive or forget. How can you end a cycle of abuse when abuse is all you know?
The Dark Magazine—Issue 56, January 2020
Bridget follows her husband from their Irish home to the distant shores of Australia hoping, like immigrants always do, of a chance at a new life in a new land. She gets just that, but not in the way she expected. After he abandons her, she discovers her Victor Frankenstein-esque talent and puts it to good use on Melbourne’s forgotten and vulnerable. Sweetly sad and remarkably refreshing, Tara Calaby’s story sets up trope after trope and knocks them down with a smirk.
Galaxy’s Edge—January 2020
At first, the invitation seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. Donna has been scraping her way through the culinary industry just trying to get by when star butcher Judith invites her for a private tasting. The meat is unusual, not just in appearance but taste. Somehow Judith has infused each cut with an intense sensation, a pâté that causes Donna to break out in goosebumps of desire, a prosciutto that tastes of “tart and salt and licorice” and righteous anger. Kristen Koopman story manages to be both playful and unnerving, a story where the truth is simultaneously obvious yet obscured.
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.