The Best Short SFF: Spring 2017

The Spring Season was a disappointing one for me; it only brought about two favorites, and a handful of other recommendations.

The Very Best

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries), by Martha Wells; Tor Novella
The difficulty of reconciling one’s private self with one’s public façade produces a multitude of anxieties that manifest in different ways. For the self-styled Murderbot of Martha Wells “All Systems Red”, a SecUnit (security robot) who lacks the full autonomy the privileged class (in this case, humans) enjoy, the coveting of its private self is not just a way to stay sane, but a way to remain alive and employed. Its internal monologue expresses a deep cynicism and flippant attitude toward its human employers – an emotional defense mechanism if ever there was one – even as it admits to itself that it likes most of the humans it is trying to avoid connecting with. From the start we are told that Murderbot has hacked its “governor” – a deeply flawed piece of regulatory software that ensures its adherence to protocol – and could conceivably go on an indiscriminate murder spree whenever it wants. It doesn’t, though, because like most of us it just wants to watch tv serials and not be hunted down and destroyed by angry humans who don’t want to be murdered. So Murderbot performs its duties protecting the scientific survey team it was assigned to, faithful to the programming it doesn’t technically have to adhere to anymore in order to jealously guard its secret self – until protecting the team and keeping its secret become incompatible.
Lest you think this is just a cerebral character study about living with double consciousness, let me assure you that it is mostly made up of robot battles and bullets shredding things and shit blowing up – its thinkiness is an important complimentary component of the whole, but far from the whole itself. In other words, “All Systems Red” is the best kind of science fiction. Murderbot’s character arc – a journey from insular self-awareness to true self-knowledge – is the story’s heart, and its most entertaining feature as well.

Short Stories
Octopus vs. Bear, by Kendra Fortmeyer; Lightspeed Magazine Issue 84, May 2017
I’m old enough to remember the disturbingly misogynistic music video for the casually misogynistic Prodigy song “Smack My Bitch Up”. It was a slick, conscienceless little piece of pop trash in which the viewer was treated to a long take POV of what is presumably a man on a drug-fueled bender of violent abuse against everyone and everything he comes across, including himself. The oh-so-clever punchline to this odyssey of stupidity comes when “he” looks in the mirror at the end of the video and – surprise!!!! – it was a woman the whole time!
(Yes, I know all y’all are gonna fire it up on youtube now. I’ll wait.)
I doubt the parallel is intentional, but my brain went there when I read Kendra Fortmeyer’s “Octopus vs. Bear”. In Fortmeyer’s tale, a man inexplicably wakes up in the body of a woman of color he’s never met and has no tangible connection to. He embarks on what he thinks is going to be a joyous romp, but is forced to confront complicated feelings about what it means to inhabit the woman’s body, as well as his own. The best thing about Fortmeyer’s story is that there are no obvious villains here – sexism and racism are not the exclusive province of people who are openly sexist and racist. Assumptions about the bodies of women, and specifically women of color, are damaging enough coming from men who are, more or less, of evident goodwill. The second person POV is well utilized, giving it a voyeuristic slant that is both discomforting and haunting.

Also Recommended

Short Stories
Welcome to Astuna, by Pip Coen; Apex Magazine Issue 97 (June 2017)
The Selkie Wives, by Kendra Fortmeyer; Apex Magazine Issue 95 (April 2017)
Persephone of the Crows, by Karen Joy Fowler; Asimov’s Science FIction (May/June 2017)
Love Engine Optimization, by Matthew Kressel; Lightspeed Magazine Issue 85 (June 2017)
The Ways Out, by Sam J. Miller; Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 129 (June 2017)
Crossing the Threshold, by Pat Murphy; Lightspeed Magazine Issue 85 (June 2017)
The White-Throated Transmigrant, by E. Lily Yu; (June 21, 2017)
Come As You Are, by Dale Bailey; Asimov’s Science Fiction (May/June 2017)

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