December 2021 brought a plethora of great short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories to my inbox. Judging by the stories that ended up on my spotlight this month, I went on an environmental disasters kick. From fussy lake gods to exploitative space station dwellers, from technology-infused religious beliefs to robots repopulating the planet, with a few creepy houses to spice things up.
Plus! Four extra stories from a few publications whose summer and fall issues I missed when they were initially released.
There’s always at least one story every month that burrows under my skin and leaves me trembling, and this go-round it was “Drip.” A gaggle of children live in a house with their increasingly disturbed father. One of them, the narrator, becomes dangerously obsessed with the filthy sink faucet, “a sorry little thing—rusted in some places, stained in others.” Shreya Vikram’s writing is shockingly good and visceral in a way I can’t quite explain. This is one of those stories you just have to experience.
A cashier at a Missouri pizza joint is sacrificed to the Lake God in an attempt to end a vicious drought. It works, but not in the way the townsfolk or Janie, the intended victim, expects. Caite Sajwaj’s story unfolds in a way that is enjoyable and satisfying. Stories about environmental crises tend to be heavy and dark, but this had just enough wit and humor to make it feel like a palate cleanser. A nice change of pace.
Metaphorosis (December 2021)
Kallie remembers nothing of her past except for the daughter she never knew. Trapped in an unbreakable cycle of debt, she doesn’t dare hope for anything better than a good life for her child. But when the past intrudes on the present, she suddenly can see a future for herself beyond the cold space station she’s stuck in. An excellent story of lies and secrets, of revelations and comeuppance.
Future Science Fiction Digest (December 2021, issue 13)
Anytime an Adam-Troy Castro story crosses my feed, I have to read it. “Fairy Tale” is set in the not-too-distant future where climate change and social upheaval seem to have decimated the Earth. An old man tells his son about a “magic box that told stories,” of people who traveled to the stars, of a time when people could dream about the endless possibilities instead of scrabbling for sustenance. I really liked this short yet refreshingly different take on a dystopian future.
Lightspeed Magazine (December 2021, issue 130)
Yun is a robot, a Model 2200 Enforcer, whose job it is to monitor the environmental repair work other robots are doing around the planet. Generations ago, humans climbed aboard a spaceship, leaving the crisis control and reparative work to the droids. Yun struggles against his bosses ludicrous and selfish demands and chafes at having his skills and knowledge dismissed. Although this was about futuristic robots, it’s easy to see the parallels with human workers today in Western and Western-influenced societies.
Dark Matter Magazine (November/December 2021, issue 6)
“I died in a tropical rain forest, protesting the logging industry.” And with that killer (pun!) hook begins Marissa Lingen’s bittersweet story about a life not well lived and an afterlife that could be better. Cora was an activist in life, but wakes to an afterlife at the banks of the Cocytus, a river from ancient Greek mythology. “Roots of Lamentation” reminds us that it’s okay—that it’s necessary—to mourn and grieve, and that the only way to move forward is to accept the past.
The Deadlands (December 2021, issue 8)
In future India, Nayana Chacko is a special investigator for the Samsāran Crimes Division. She gets reports of a fascist spirit occupying a copper tea broiler at a local restaurant and ends up uncovering a much bigger problem. This story tangles with the push and pull between free speech and hate speech, between freedom and democracy, between doing what’s right and doing what’s just. Lavanya Lakshminarayan created such a fascinating premise; I’d love to see more from this world and of Nayana, if she’s so inclined.
Apex Magazine (December 2021, issue 128)
I loved this weird, discombobulating tale about an endless train trip. A father recounts a journey he took as a young man during the Iran-Iraq War. He and a woman woke to find themselves alone on a train and unable to escape. Things go from curious to surreal to strange to nightmarish. I think what I loved most about Mohammad Tolouei’s story was the ending—or non-ending, I should say.
Samovar (December 27, 2021)
After Theodora loses her baby, she begins to see beings no one else can, Mothers, as they think of themselves, “slithering, sliding underneath the floorboards and behind paintings on the wall.” They form a dark and terrible bond with Theodora as they encourage her to mother the Mothers. This was so wholly unsettling that I had to put my laptop down for a bit after I finished it. I’ve never read anything by Laur A. Freymiller before, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for them now.
Nightmare Magazine (December 2021, issue 111)
This second-person POV story from Greta Hayer is centered on an NPC in a fantasy video game. Their life is simple, rigid, and unalterable. Their routine is punctuated only by the sudden arrival of playable main characters who burst into their home to steal their belongings or pepper them with intrusive and intensive questions at the tavern. There is hope here, but it’s as flimsy and thin as the NPC’s backstory. But maybe that’s enough.
Flash Point SF (December 3, 2021)
And here are the four extra stories from summer and fall. I’m very glad I went back and caught up on the issues I’d missed.
“The Drifting Bodega” by Christopher Yusko—Speculative City, Summer 2021: “I wove through unfamiliar city streets, losing myself like I’d read about on the forums, losing myself to find the Bodega.” You may know what you want, but as this disconcerting story shows, it might not always be what you need.
“Miss 49 Days” by Mina Li—Translunar Travelers Lounge, August 2021: “I turned around, and there was the previous owner of my new house, standing right behind me as if she hadn’t died the week before.” Lovely and earnest, this story about a woman living in a ghost waystation made me smile.
“Cocoon” by Atreyee Gutpa—Apparition Lit, October 2021: “This is how I’m undone: as a translucent growth, as flesh vegetating into stone. I taste death, peaty and stale.” A powerful story about transformation and rebirth.
“A Luxury Like Hope” by Aimee Ogden—Future Fire, October 2021: “Her eyes closed, though her lashes still stirred against her cheek. There was sleep, and then there was rest. She’d take whichever one she could get. One more week until home.” A hopeful story about recovery amidst ruin.
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).