- “A Very Large Number of Moons” by Kai Stewart, Strange Horizons, March 12, 2018 (fantasy short story)
- “Data” by João Ramalho-Santos, Nature, March 14, 2018 (science fiction short story)
- “The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes” by Siobhan Carroll, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #247, March 15, 2018 (fantasy short story)
- “Braving the Morrow Candle’s Wane” by J.W. Alden, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #247, March 15, 2018 (fantasy short story)
- “Cosmic Spring” by Ken Liu, Lightspeed #94, March , 2018 (science fiction short story)
- “Soft Clay” by Seth Chambers, Diabolical Plots #37B, March 16, 2018 (science fantasy short story)
- “The Last Rites of Quotient Lorenzo-Lochbaum” by Claire Phillips, Terraform, March 16, 2018 (science fiction short story)
Issue #247 of BCS could be called the “swords into ploughshares” issue. “Braving the Morrow Candle’s Wane” is not a fantasy but simply vaguely medieval. The story itself is of an old lady trying to distract a soldier, who is hunting for the girl she’s hiding, with a tale of her own gain and loss of one faith during a war and the different faith she replaced it with. The climax hinges on how the soldier reacts.
I’m not often privileged to read a masterpiece but, at least in the heat of the moment, I feel that “The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes” is. It’s the tale of a war and the supremely devoted chef who, by being just what he was, changed the world. A very unusual take on the maxim that an army travels on its stomach. The story of that chef is told by a master chef to an apprentice in five segments which makes it both metafictional and a listory, which are often fatal things to attempt, but this story’s metafictional aspects serve the story, heightening, rather than distracting from or being snide about, its storyness. And the list is more in the way of section headers in a normal, full-bodied narrative but serve to keep the story’s proportions and pace perfect. This story’s tone is another thing that’s handled perfectly and the tale could be placed in that section of a textbook. It’s lightly told, yet with full seriousness, feeling the pains of war while softening them to bearable levels, feeling very much like the narrator is a full character but isn’t a metafictional (in a bad way) stand-in for the author. The style is generally a significant part of this and it’s amazing how beautiful the prose is, to be basically so plain and devoid of any “preciousness.” It also does a wonderful job of managing its dimensions, with a foreground story given depth and scope by casual but ominous background references to, for example, blood mages and harvests. Another of the strongest features can be described by the story itself: “From time to time one bites through one of the tiny pockets of parsley and garlic, and their unexpected flavors burst in your mouth.” This story is full of such pockets, from the soldiers being especially happy due to not having died, to artists being a little crazy, to what people often do when puzzled, to the significance of the belief in one’s insignificance, to the soldier’s collecting seasoning leaves, to the value of desire to an almost hopeless prisoner, to infinity. I don’t even think a main character’s name (Eres) is an accident (a blend of Ares and Eros?) Finally, as is often the case when I’m reading a story I’m thrilled by, I’m afraid it’ll fall on the dismount. I’ll grant that some could find a little too much of one thing or a little too much of another but, for me, this manages a perfect blend of light and shadow.
Lest this all sound like a mere technical tour de force, I’ll say that it’s a story about war and memory and food (and you don’t need to be a gourmand to appreciate it – I was eating a Hot Pocket® during part of it) which is to say, it’s about things that matter. And you will care about the characters’ fates. Wonderful. I don’t see how this won’t be in multiple year’s bests and up for awards.
Perhaps my story circuits were blown by that story because the next one I read was “Cosmic Spring” which I can’t quite fully recommend. (I don’t ordinarily cover reprints/translations but I made an exception, not least because this was “translated” by the bilingual author and originally published this year.) It’s a far-far future eschatological tale about an AI piloting Earth to the last star in the universe. It may blow some readers’ minds and it accomplishes a great deal in a short space but, perhaps by having only an AI character and only that short space, there’s something faintly clinical about it despite all its cosmic-scale concerns about consciousness and history. Still, it’s very likely worth a look for most readers.
All stories this week aside from “War of Light and Shadow” were three thousand words or less (most significantly less) and, aside from it and “Cosmic Spring,” were much less striking. “Data” involves a guy being confronted by his BDSM (Big Data Special Manager) for not behaving as his statistics say he should but has no story. That problem similarly afflicts “A Very Large Number of Moons” which is an otherwise appealing and surreal tale of a collector of moons in conversation with someone who tracked the former down wanting a particular moon of importance to the latter. Ditto the also oddly passionless “The Last Rites of Quotient Lorenzo-Lochbaum” in which a mother, who is about to benefit from her daughter’s self-sacrifice in a “cap and trade” system of (im)mortality), answers her child’s dying question about whether she would do anything differently if she had her life to live over. The mother’s answer tells us about their current society and the personalities of both women, painting an odd picture which does not flatter anyone, especially not the mother herself, or her society. Or ours. Finally, “Soft Clay” is yet another underplotted story which is mostly a fantasy and which involves a shapeshifter, who had been created by a mad (from grief) scientist, drifting from person to person and being defined by them. This has disturbingly incestuous and infantilizing elements that don’t seem entirely intentional or addressed. Aside from that, it’s reminiscent of things like van Vogt’s “Vault of the Beast” and, especially, Spinrad’s “Child of Mind” but from the object’s POV.