Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction: April 2020

March seemed to drag on for an eternity while April was gone in a flash. Normal no longer exists. Time is a flat circle. Hell is empty, and so on and so forth. Speculative fiction cannot save the world, but if my experience is any indication it can at least make sheltering in place a little less soul-crushing. We were graced with a lot of great short horror, fantasy, and science fiction this past month, and these are ten of my favorites.

 

“AirBody” by Sameem Siddiqui

Sameem Siddiqui has the first of two avatar-centric stories in this spotlight. Here Meena, a middle-aged woman from Karachi, rents the body of a young man of Pakistani ancestry in order to visit a woman she misses dearly. As Meena prepares for her reconciliation, the narrator recalls his childhood filled with a culture he hasn’t experienced in a long time. With affability and sweet-natured humor, Siddiqui tells a story of two people more alike than they are different and who long for something they let slip away.

Clarkesworld (April 2020, issue 163)

 

“Akhulume” by Larissa Irankunda

Imprisoned on an alien spaceship, the narrator of this piece is tormented by death. The captive is forced to speak their name, and everytime they do, another alien dies. For the narrator, their language is beautiful, but for the aliens it’s an affront, a disgrace, a horrible thing that must be eradicated. It’s a tale as old as time: colonists confront something they cannot understand and react with violence and fear. To survive, the invaded must give up their culture and traditions or transform them into something else. An evocative, subtle story.

Fireside Magazine (April 2020, issue 78)

 

“Her Cage of Root and Bone” by Kali Wallace

Two sisters, one a queen and the other her prisoner. Once a year Nell visits Lottie who she keeps locked away in a tower with only her thoughts and her hatred for her sister to keep her company. And then something unexpected happens. Lottie could finally be free, even if it’s not in the way she planned. Kali Wallace turns the trope of the wicked queen and the sympathetic victim inside out by blurring the line between good and evil until nothing separates them. She delves into their seemingly endless cycle of mutual hatred with a style that makes it feel like a lost fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies (April 9, 2020, issue 301)

 

“Caring For Dragons and Growing a Flower” by Allison Thai

At the tail end of the Vietnam War, a husband and wife exchange letters. Cương is captured by the Party and talks his way into a job caring for the dragons of the People’s Army. In his work he finds a sort of honor and self-respect. His beloved, Thi, flees to America looking for a safe place to call home but instead finds only a different shade of violence and intolerance. Theirs is a love destined to remain unfulfilled, but Allison Thai imbues it with hope and resistance.

PodCastle (April 21, 2020)

 

“Cast Member Rules at Old Tech Town” by Shaenon K. Garrity

As someone who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and spends a lot of time in the city—it is only ever San Francisco or the city, never San Fran or ‘Frisco—this piece had me cackling. Like the story, the city is equal parts absurd, foreboding, and entertaining. Shaenon K. Garrity writes her story as if it were an employee guide book for a theme park version of San Francisco, or Old Tech Town as it is known by the futuristic non-human entities that occupy Earth. Cast members are instructed to “alert the authorities when an “indigenous human” is detected within the park, never venture beyond the firewall, and to “remain in their assigned districts for historical accuracy: Tourists in Fisherman’s Wharf, Startuppers in the Mission, Illegal Services Providers in the Tenderloin, etc.”

Cast of Wonders (April 15, 2020, episode 410)

 

“Elsewhere” by James S.A. Corey

I liked James S.A. Corey’s story when I read it in March, but when I took a second look at it a month later it hit me a lot harder. The story is about a woman, Jeannie, who visits her dying father in hospice with the aid of a rental avatar device. Their society is not far removed from the contemporary American one—medicine has only progressed so far and finances have a much bigger influence on health decisions than they have any right to. I thought about the tens of thousands of people dying alone with their loved ones locked away at home, and I thought of my aunt who works in a hospital and has had to perform last rights and grief counseling via video chat, and suddenly this exceptional and touching science fiction story felt all too real.

XPrize: Avatars Inc (March 2020)

 

“An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands” by Fran Wilde

A map may be static, but what it represents is not. Lands change, people change, the way we see the world changes. Fran Wilde digs into that fluctuation and evolution with her mesmerizing story about a Navigator who travels the known world searching for the unknown. A generation ship lands on a shore of what is supposed to be an empty land only to find it already populated. The Captain turns the Navigator into a Cartographer and sends them out to find a place without settlers so the sleeping inhabitants on the ship might finally build a home. There are “Shadow Maps” and a “Map of Braids,” “Map of Kisses Down the Curve of One’s Neck” and “Two Maps That Both Want the Same Thing,” and others that push imagination to the brink. Wilde tells the Navigator’s journey through short vignettes of gorgeously rendered prose.

Tor.com (April 22, 2020)

 

“A Moonlit Savagery” by Millie Ho

“I smell him before I see him: intestines coated sweetly with coconut milk, clumps of green papaya dissolving in stomach acid, everything numbed with flakes of red chili peppers so spicy, they must taste bitter.” A Thai ghost bound to a decaying hotel encounters a fledgling artist touring Southeast Asia and they form a strange relationship. Years later the artist returns, now wildly famous and successful, intent on commodifying that relationship. Things go about as well for him as expected for a story called “A Moonlight Savagery.” This brilliantly chilling story was the first I’ve read by Millie Ho, but it won’t be my last.

Nightmare Magazine (April 2020, issue 91)

 

“My Soul Is Wolf” by Joyce Chng

Joyce Chng’s short story stretches symbolism into a fantastical reality full of sharp teeth and misunderstandings. If you asked their companions and colleagues, they might say the narrator has a sense of darkness or a wildness about them. But for the narrator, it is power and strength and self-determination and it’s not buried deep within but just under the surface waiting to break free. The narrator dreams of letting their true self—the wolf—out, but the demands of living as a human take their toll. A tremendous werewolf story unlike any I’ve ever read.

Anathema (April 2020, issue 10)

 

“The Sycamore and the Sybil” by Alix E. Harrow

Alix E. Harrow had two short stories out in April that I absolutely adored (the other being “The Ransom of Miss Coraline Connelly” in Fireside Magazine), but “The Sycamore and the Sybil” squeaked out ahead by a hair. With her trademark lush prose, Harrow weaves a tale of sorrow and strength, regret and rebirth. Years ago a woman turned herself into a tree to escape the violence of a man. When another young woman is shackled to a “two-legged [wolf] who wore a coat and a tie, who waxed their hair smooth as brass and smiled too damn much,” the sycamore tree shares the secret to her escape.

Uncanny Magazine (March/April 2020, issue 33)

 

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.

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