Short story reviews for December 2015

Every time I sat down to read stories for this month’s column, I thought the theme was obvious. At the end of a long year filled with outrage and sadness, focusing on the lighthearted seemed like the way to go. But this winter has been strange. The days are warm and rainy, almost balmy, more like late spring than a midwestern midwinter. Tonight, as I’m putting this together, the hemisphere creeps closer to the longest night of the year. In the winter I expected, this is the point at which the snow starts to stick. When the days begin to lengthen again, when the sun decides to stick around a minute longer every day… This winter, I keep thinking that’s no longer a guarantee. And the stories that keep sticking in my head? They’re the ones about endings, about new starts deferred, about the hope for something beyond, even if you won’t live to see it.

A Drop of Ink Preserved in Amber by Marina J. Lostetter (4700 words)
Shimmer #28, November 2015

Amber knew normal girls didn’t have drawers in their chests. Or in their stomachs, or backs, or thighs. She knew her parents had had her specially designed by a geneticist in Pakistan, where the international genome-manipulation laws were more difficult to enforce than in the U.S. In the history of the world, there had never been another human like her. And she was human, even if she didn’t look it on an X-ray.

And her parents had made it quite clear that X-rays were to be avoided at all costs.

“You are too special,” they told Amber when she was little. “There are some things other people were simply never meant to know.”

In this short, Lostetter puts an emotional and resonant twist on what could be called bodypunk: Set in a not-so-future version of America in which extreme body mods have taken a turn for the genetic, Amber is a girl who is aware from an early age that she is entirely the product of her parents’ desires. It’s not entirely in the same sense with which all of us have to come to terms — Amber’s parents’ desires are for wealth and status and the thrill of the illicit. They take a great chance with her safety at a time when society is turning against its own advances. As she grows, and has to hide, Amber learns that secrets can be a form of currency. Hers, her friends, her society’s. Long after the danger has passed, she lacks the courage to be open but she manages to preserve enough of herself to keep the story alive long after she’s gone: a gift for others like her, even if their difference isn’t the same as hers.

“Swept Up by Hannah Powell-Smith (interactive fiction, >5 minutes)
Sub-Q, November 2015

and here you are and she’s driving through the night and the car engine rumbles in your chest and your mouth tastes of bruise and blood and gravel and your tooth feels –

and your sleeves are soaked and you’re pretty sure it’s your blood but it’s hard to tell

she swerves

Interactive fiction doesn’t get a lot of play in more traditional sf/f/horror venues, which is a shame because a well-made IF story can push the envelope in a lot of ways work in those venues can’t. Powell-Smith’s sparse tale packs a punch that wouldn’t be as noticeable among thousands of extra words. It’s not the choose-your-adventure style you remember; no pits of broken branches or secret agents lie in wait for you here. Instead you put yourself into the persona of a girl in trouble, though you aren’t exactly sure how large that trouble will prove to be. The girl you are depends on the choices you make, but you can always refresh and try again.