So long 2020. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. 2020 may have been a trash fire of epic proportions, but at least the short speculative fiction was good. These ten science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories were some of my favorites of the end-of-the-year crop. Genderqueer knights, resurrections, people made of fungi, sentient robots, it’s all here, and then some.
Two John Wiswell stories and two from the November/December issue of Uncanny in a row? It’s a Jólabókaflóð miracle! “The Bottomless Martyr” tells of Rang, a young woman who keeps dying and being brought back to life by her stepmother, Death. With each resurrection she delivers a boon to those around her and a punishment to everyone else. Raiders die in a random whirlpool. A typhoon destroying her village ceases. Weapons for defense appear out of nowhere. But is her situation a gift or a curse? Or both?
Uncanny (November/December 2020, Issue 37)
Kastra chafes under her father’s narrowmindedness and oppressive traditions. She longs to take up with one of the adventuring crews that pass through her father’s tavern on their way to glory and thrills. The more he refuses to let her go, the more she aches to leave. A. T. Olvera tells the story from the perspective of Kastra’s sister who learned the hard way to see their father’s mantra of “We are not like them. We were not made for their life,” as something to be cast aside.
From the Farther Trees (December 2020, Issue 3)
“I meet you in the middle of the night in the garden where no one goes…Now it is a place where no one goes, except for young girls meeting their lovers in the middle of the night.” Two lovers from different backgrounds meet in an abandoned garden to practice their magic and fall in love. When they’re discovered, it all falls apart. As dark and lyrical as a fairytale told by candlelight while a storm rages outside.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies (December 3, 2020, Issue 318)
It’s not often I come across a story that hits me like a punch to the face, but “In the Glass Hall of Supreme Women” is one of those stories. Miss Fei, formerly Mrs. Keo, is sent away by her husband when he no longer has use for her. She had been a prized bride, graduating from Marriage School with top marks, good looks, and an obedient attitude, but now she’s in the Glass Hall waiting for the mushroom spores to take root and turn her from human into food. With an undercurrent of social critique, Jaymee Goh crafts a powerful piece of science fiction.
Fireside (December 2020)
Every winter there is a glut of stories set at Christmas or featuring Old Saint Nick. Fiona Moore dabbles in the Santa mythos, but with a decidedly unique bent. In her story, the main character is an older homeless man called “Santa” by the locals because of his weight and ungainly facial hair. The man used to work at a company that built AI toys, and after a violent attack he begins repairing the broken sentient toys abandoned by their former owners. A bittersweet tale of a lonely man, the ways in which society punishes those who cannot conform to capitalism, and how the biggest acts of kindness often come from those who receive the least of it from others.
Clarkesworld (December 2020, Issue 171)
There were several gems in Speculative City’s Afrofuturism issue, so many that picking just one to feature took me nearly a week. In the end I went with a quirky story about a soul food restaurant that exists beyond linear time. In “Open 27 Hours,” Citrine brings her food critic friend Yanese to a joint in Chicago unlike any other restaurant in the universe. LP Kindred has a way of taking the mundane and infusing it with dry humor, an interesting twist, and the culture of the Black diaspora to create something wholly new.
Speculative City (Winter 2020, Issue 10)
Another story where an assigned-female-at-birth character resists the patriarchy and breaks rigid gender rules (it’s a trend for December, it seems). Viola has the ability to change her face to mimic others, but only her face—her body and voice remain the same. Eventually she borrows the face of a man, takes the name Cesario, and gets a job working for a duke. This is a story of transitioning, of learning how to not just survive but thrive when passing isn’t an option (and learning to find joy in the body you have).
Prismatica (December 6, 2020, Issue 14)
I can’t explain “Separation Theory” without ruining what makes it so remarkable, but I can leave you with an excerpt and a demand that you go read this mind-bendingly gorgeous story immediately. “Let’s go to the edge of this world and hop to the next one,” Ika says. “There is a cloud that will take us. The cloud is actually a dragon. The dragon is actually God. God is actually the branch of a tree that will take us to the other side. We cannot see the branch, but we can see the leaves. If we are brave, we can follow them.”
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (November 17, 2020, Issue 42)
Like “A Brave Heart and a Decent Sword,” “Talorian the Fair” features a young person treated like a maiden destined to become a mother but who really wants to explore and adventure and get into trouble—all the things only men are supposed to do in their society. This story is short and unencumbered but so lovely that I yearn for a whole novel about the brave knight Talorian.
Daily Science Fiction (December 29, 2020)
A lot of the short stories I read are about tragic and terrible events, so it was nice to get a break and read something that had me cackling with laughter. Tony Roomba is an undercover alien robot sent to scout for information ahead of an invasion of Earth. He’s scheduled to return to his people for debrief, but his final day is plagued with obstacles and inconveniences including a robot trash can, ogling humans, and a cat named Hortense.
Diabolical Plots (December 16, 2020, #70B)