Normally I like my October to be full of dark and stormy stories. This year I went humorous yet thoughtful, with a splash of the apocalypse for good measure. Many of these authors were new to me, and I got a kick out of getting to know them and their work. Here are my ten—no, scratch that, eleven!—favorite short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories I read in October.
Any day I get a new Tochi Onyebuchi story is a good day. In this story, he zeros in on technological advancements learning to work with nature instead of against it. A scientist, Chima, finds a way around proprietary data to develop a way to potentially treat disease by using mosquitoes to spread vaccines. I’d expect a story like this to be overly serious or dense with science and postulating about the world, but Onyebuchi keeps it light and personable. But don’t mistake that for a lack of depth or meaning. He is very good at conversing between the lines.
Slate: Future Tense (October 29, 2021)
A PhD student searches for a way to rescue his missing sister, a girl everyone else believes is dead and gone. This was a remarkable story that tugged on me in a way I couldn’t really name until after I read the accompanying Host Commentary with Brent C. Lambert. This is absolutely a story of the distance in the diaspora, of what it means to know your family is broken by forces beyond your control but also having to believe they’re still out there because anything else is unbearable. I think of the thousands of ads put out by formerly enslaved people searching for their loved ones after the Civil War and how most were never reunited. It makes these sentences even more gutting: “I know you are still alive. I am haunted by the fact that I am fine and you might not be.”
Escape Pod (October 14, 2021, 806)
A young journalist reaches for her big career break in an incoming hurricane. She and her cameraman wind up in a dive bar where a group of fanatics are about to kick off a ceremony to mark the end of the world. When faced with the story of a lifetime, Harriet just can’t pass up the opportunity…even if it costs her everything. A darkly funny story about ambitions run amok and the end of the world.
PseudoPod (October 8, 2021, 778)
As a person who also has a malfunctioning uterus, this story encapsulates exactly how I feel every month. Kristen Koopman writes this as if it were a review for an artificial uterus. It’s blistering in every way. Koopman pokes at how technology is so often built in such a way that it doesn’t account for the needs of AFAB people and how dismissive people are of AFAB medical needs (look up IUDs and pain management, to pick an example out of thin air).
Baffling (October 2021, issue 5)
A read a few AI/android stories in October, but this was my favorite of the pack. It’s also one of the saddest. Slip is a bot that is sort of like Alexa or Siri. It takes him a while to get calibrated, yet no matter how much he tries to observe and learn from his humans, he always gets returned as faulty. As someone with neurodiversity issues, I really felt for Slip. He tries to answer truthfully, but his owners find his answers unsatisfactory, not because they’re wrong necessarily but because they aren’t “right.” Or, to put it another way, he’s missing the more subtle forms of social context that would allow him to respond in a way the humans see as appropriate. I don’t know if that’s what Marya Mahamed was going for, but I loved the story regardless.
FIYAH (Autumn 2021, No. 20)
“On a pale horse, she rides.” Death makes the first of two appearances on this list this month. She arrives at the home of Clara Garcia, ready to claim the woman’s soul, but the crows Clara has been taking care of aren’t having it. I liked the way Tarver Nova did something slightly different with a well-worn premise; it’s refreshing in tone and content. With its compelling mix of bittersweet drama and charming silliness, this story should not be missed.
Kaleidotrope (Autumn 2021)
When I first read “The Chicken Line,” I wasn’t sure if it would make the cut, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. A group of people are waiting in line to get chicken parts from a grumpy farmer. In the line is an outsider with a machete, but he turns out to not be the real threat. And no, I’m not talking about the person who turns into a monster. Jendayi Brooks-Flemister asks us to look at ourselves and how we treat those who are different. Sometimes our own community can be even more monstrous than the monsters.
Constelación Magazine (issue 2)
Four figures wait on a dying world. Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War have rampaged through the world, and now all that is left is the end. That final moment is delivered by their fifth sibling, the youngest and the one with the most power. Martin Cahill is a wonderfully evocative writer; he can turn a phrase just so that you can almost hear the grotesque sound of the “dust and sand and night crawlers exploding outward from her thin, sagging belly.”
I don’t usually do this, but I just had to give an honorable mention to Jana Bianchi’s Fireside story “Not Quite What We’re Looking for Right Now.” This very short story is so perfectly scathing that I cackled in petty glee through the entire thing.
Fireside (October 2021)
Oof, this story hit me right in the feels. A prince ventures into the forest searching for a way to free his people from their timeless curse. His mother, weighed down by immense grief, launched the curse on her deathbed, and the prince is the only person who can break it. I wasn’t planning on a story about the harm of unintended consequences to be this heartfelt. After this, I’ll be keeping an eye out for J.C. Pillard. Looking forward to reading her next piece.
Metaphorosis Magazine (October 2021)
Frankenstein gets remixed in this excellent near future story. In London, several Zimbabwean immigrants decide to reanimate the dead. Specifically, a Black teen who was also a victim of British colonialism, albeit in a different way than the scientists. Masimba Musodza’s characters live in a morally gray world where the debate about whether the ends justify the means rages on. Lots of little details that, upon a second or third reading, take on a deeper significance.
Omenana (October 2021, issue 19)
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).