Since 1965, writers who are qualified members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) nominate and vote each year for the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story. Although the works have to be available in English in the United States, speculative fiction of many varieties can be nominated because there is no official definition of SF or Fantasy work of fiction. The Unbound Writers return this year to consider the nominated short stories, and to appreciate the unique voices, strong writing, and surprising plots. (We discuss them in author name order.)
Lisa Mahoney read: “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno
Giant meteorite headed for Earth! We’re all going to die! A whiskey-swilling bazillionaire scientist/inventor struggles to interview in less than a week 400 overqualified candidates to people his giant spaceship-ark of humanity, and launches them deep into the solar system to colonize Titan, where they will sit out the catastrophe. How to keep the desperate masses from stopping his launch or attacking the desert compound? Bruno’s story is a prequel to his sci-fi series, Titan’s Children. He writes that the purpose of the story is to explain the protagonist’s original bad idea, which undermines the portrayal of this character’s legend in the future novels. Although as a new reader coming upon this story as a stand-alone, it was hard to infer that this character is not to be admired, fans of the series can learn backstory about a certain young stowaway and the reason the leader is missing, while delving into the theme of father-daughter love.
CH Lips read: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark
In this Nebula- and Hugo-nominated story published in Fireside Magazine, Clark takes a creative swing at white-washed American history, plucking a little-known historical fact about our first POTUS and creating a spec-fic story that bashes enduring generalizations about people who lived as slaves. The story opens with an entry taken from George Washington’s account book found at Mount Vernon: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.”
If you’re like me, you’ll never again see that flat, unassuming smile on the dollar bill without thinking about the teeth hiding behind it. And the lives of the people who supplied those teeth. In his blog, Clark writes: “Black people did not sit on the sidelines as spectators while history occurred. Black people were part of that history.”
This story imagines an alternative glimpse into that rich and mostly ignored history. Each time George dons one of the nine teeth, we enter into the perspective of the tooth’s owner and witness how their experience as George’s slave influences how hey exact vengeance on the man who owned their lives and bought their teeth (likely at a discount). Some of the tooth owners haunt his sleep with songs of ancient powers of the sea; others usurp his dreams with their own dreams of his violent demise.
Some teeth, imbued with the magical powers the owners once wielded, stir up George’s well-ordered life. Ulysses, the head cook, possesses George and directs him to poison the food of the dinner guests with a transformational potion borrowed from the Greek goddess, Circe. A blacksmith, whose repetitive hammer-strikes pound away in George’s head, explains the all-inclusive curse of slavery:
Clark is brilliant at seamlessly melding fantasy with historical fact, tone and even typeset of eighteenth-century America. He snookered me more than once. I had to pause in my reading and think: Wait, no, the English didn’t really call for occultists and lycanthropes to bear arms against the colonists, did they?
In each of the nine stories we see that the people George owned had agency; they had captivating stories and did not surrender their inner lives to the circumstances that imprisoned them. The final vignette is the story of Emma, one of the first slaves owned at Mount Vernon. It is the most poignant in part because there are no fantastical elements:
It is Emma’s tooth that has the most profound effect on George. She haunts him with the truth—people should not be owned. In a surprising twist, George actually listens.
C.S. Peterson read: “And Yet” by A. T. Greenblatt
A newly minted post-doctoral researcher enters a haunted house on the theory that it is really the repository of an infinite number of parallel universes. Greenblatt’s story “And Yet”, published in Uncanny Magazine, has it all: haunted houses, regrets, memory, time travel, childhood trauma, quantum physics, bullies, parallel worlds, revenge, and redemption. It’s an ambitious list. Individually any one of these topics could offer a wealth of territory to explore. And yet Greenblatt has managed to combine them all into a seamless unity, making the rules of a strange, horrifying world crystal clear. The first line neatly summons the weight of trauma and memory, and the questionable decision to take a deep dive back into that morass:
“Only idiots go back to the haunted houses of their childhood. And yet.”
And yet the protagonist does go back into that haunted house. Or rather, you do. It is a truth universally acknowledged that entering a haunted house is a bad idea. Entering haunted houses is something we usually enjoy watching others do. We get our horror fix vicariously. Our catharsis comes secondhand, at a safe distance, whispering “don’t do it, don’t do it” sotto voce as we read, moving along with the protagonist step by fraught step. Greenblatt peels away layers of this distance by writing in the second person. It is not him or her that enters the haunted house of their childhood, but you. Thus, Greenblatt deftly moves her readers from the theoretical to the visceral:
The protagonist relives a childhood event. It is time travel of a very particular kind. Time travel is a tricky thing. There are many theories on how time travel handles paradoxes. One is that if you go back and make a big enough change, you will split off into a parallel universe where that thing, the thing you just did, happened. This is the haunted house. This is also memory, and regret. If you had stayed home that night and studied instead of gone to that party, then what would you be? There are so many possibilities, forget the simple binary question of whether Schrödinger’s cat is dead or alive. In this haunted house there are an infinite number of variations of an infinite number of things. They appear on a flickering television, in shifting rooms.
The titular phrase “and yet” echoes throughout the story, as much about second chances as second-guessing. Shouldn’t you stick with what you’ve got if what you’ve got is pretty good? And yet, the possibility of a second chance beckons, even though you know that second chances are never free. You’d have to be an idiot to give up what you’ve worked for on the chance that you could change the one thing from your childhood that you really wish had never happened. You’d have to be an idiot. And yet …
Theodore McCombs read: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow
The narrator in “A Witch’s Guide to Escape,” published by Apex Magazine, is the latter, of course, and she has her eye on an awkward black teen in foster care who just wants to escape into books. The kid has a thing for portal fantasies, especially a crummy mid-90’s sword-and-sorcery novel called The Runaway Prince. Our witch-librarian slips him Earthsea and Harry Potter, while his social worker makes him check out Chicken Soup for the Depressed Soul. The witch, convinced that the kid in fact needs just the sort of escapism he’s seeking, realizes she has a very particular book that could transport him away from his troubles, and not just for a handful of hours.
This is a deeply kind story, engagingly written, and threaded with fun world-building details that literalize the way books feel magical. And it’s a full-throated defense of escapism, that longing to “go through the wardrobe and never, ever come back.” What’s so bad, after all, about getting away from real-world troubles? Why should escapism be such a dirty word? It’s helped all of us, literally all of us reading Harrow’s story, at one point or another in our lives—usually, in our rotten teen years, and usually, it’s been something just as crummy and typo-riddled as The Runaway Prince. (For me, it was the Xanth series: I had a crush on Prince Dolph. Don’t @ me.)
I’m not totally convinced, personally; there’s something wicked, or at least very fae, about a portal that won’t let you back home, and I would have loved to see Harrow’s witch explored as, well, witchier. Then again, having worked in social services, I’m probably biased to identify with the caseworker who just wants her kiddo to find a decent CBT provider. Harrow’s library-romanticism is its own wonderful, restorative form of escape, a visit to an alternate world where books can do exactly what we want them to, and a satisfying moment of respite before we’re kicked back to the rude world of 2019. Definitely give it a read!
Mark Springer read: “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker
Magic isn’t real; it’s an illusion, sleight of hand, misdirection. Most of us know this, especially those who’ve learned a trick or two in our time. And yet, to watch a talented illusionist perform—to see assistants sawed in half, playing cards conjured from thin air, flowers turned into birds, bullets caught between teeth—is to be enchanted. It is to believe, if only for a moment, that magic is real, even when we know better. Our willingness to suspend judgment in exchange for the promise of a glimpse of something extraordinary is what makes the magic work. We participate in the illusion. We want magic to be real.
The boy in Sarah Pinsker’s enthralling story, “The Court Magician,” wants magic to be real, too. More than that, he wants to master it, to understand how it works. He is curious by nature, this boy who lives in poverty and begs in the market where the street magicians perform. The intensity of his desire to know how brings him to the attention of the story’s mysterious narrator, who keeps watch for children that are especially suited to become the court magician.
The boy is first tutored by the street magicians. He learns that their magic is nothing but illusion and sleight of hand and distraction. He unravels the secrets of all their tricks and begins to create his own illusions. That’s when the narrator sends an emissary to ask the fateful question: “Would you like to learn real magic?”
Of course the boy’s answer is yes, though he is skeptical. The mere possibility that real magic exists is enough to bring him to the palace, where a new tutor teaches him new tricks—all more complicated than anything he has seen before, but still illusions nonetheless. Only after he persists, only after he proves his obsession with knowing how—only then is he taught the real magic that he has been promised. It is a single word, a word that “makes problems disappear.” As the new court magician, the boy, now a young man, is duty-bound to use the word to serve the Regent, no matter the cost.
To reveal more would break the spell of Pinsker’s deftly conjured illusion, published in Lightspeed’s issue 92. Suffice it to say this spare, deceptively simple story is about more than magic. When the turn comes, when the court magician finally learns to ask the right questions about the power he has been given to wield, you’ll know what I mean. And you’ll know something else: Sarah Pinsker’s magic is real.
And a Shout-Out to SFWA’s Newest Grand Master, William Gibson
Here’s one prediction we are willing to make: William Gibson will be pleased to accept recognition as the 35th Damon Knight Grand Master for his contributions to the literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy in May of 2019 at the conference where other winners will be revealed. The honor is well deserved. Gibson, a giant of SF, is often credited with creating the cyberpunk sub-genre and having his finger so firmly fixed on the pulse of the ever-present now that he seems to be able to predict the future.