Must Read Short Speculative Fiction: January 2024

Already starting the new year running behind. I may be a bit late getting this spotlight column out to y’all, but it was worth it because I used all that extra time to read some truly awesome stories. Here are my ten of my favorite short speculative fiction stories from January. 

“D.E.I. (Death, Eternity, and Inclusion)” by N. Romaine White

Carolyn, a Black woman freshly turned into a vampire by her girlfriend, is brought before the white Grand Sire of Baltimore. She doesn’t expect to be offered a job as the head of their new DEI department. As someone who works in a predominantly white institution and spends most of their time pushing back against oppressive policies, this had me cackling. This may be a fantasy story, but it felt so familiar and true. N. Romaine White doesn’t let PWIs off the hook while also acknowledging the limits of DEI as a tool for structural change. 

(FIYAH, Winter 2024; issue 29)

“Eight Vases of Njideka” by Kasimma

The first issue of Gamut Magazine has a bunch of stories I really enjoyed, and it was hard to choose just one. This story is broken into 8 sections, 6 of which begin with the sentence “Njideka is my mother’s name, but its meaning is what I say like prayer: what I have is more.” It is a poetic piece of prose about life, our connection to our ancestors, spirituality, and truth, and all of the stories that make you you. The title refers, I think, to the shattered vase metaphor in psychology that looks at different responses to trauma. Do you give up and throw the broken pieces away? Do you glue it back together and bemoan that it doesn’t look the same? Or do you build something entirely new?

(Gamut Magazine, January 2024; issue 1)

“Escape Choice” by Emma Burnett

On a spaceship lives a neurodivergent boy, Max. His world was not built for him, nor are many people willing to accommodate his needs. As he grows, he learns to better articulate his boundaries even as others try to make him feel bad about not wanting or trying to fit in. Lockdown was the first time in my life where I was able to stop masking for a long period of time. If nothing else that period inspired me to apologize for my behaviors less and be myself more, even when it makes neurotypicals uncomfortable. Max and I have a lot in common. This story makes a great pairing with “The Imperfect Blue Marble” further down the list.

(The Future Fire, January 2024; issue 2024.68)

“Just You and Me, Now” by KT Bryski

“The campsite looks like it wants to eat them. A fire pit yawns in the middle, an ashy-grey mouth ringed by rocks like rotting teeth. The trees crowd in, sizing them up, knifing the daylight.” Little Henry had no idea how right he was. A terrifying stranger invades their campsite, and one by one Henry’s family vanishes. KT Bryski is so good at looming dread. 

(Apex Magazine, January 2024; issue 142)

“Monologue” by Kengo Nelson

Well, I wasn’t expecting to end this story on the verge of tears. Two partners, Gale and Will run a tourist hub called Taurus Crossing. Visitors pass time at the station watching the stage show: a decaying white dwarf. I won’t tell you why this story made me so emotional, only that Kengo Nelson gradually leads the reader to the truth in such a way that you can feel it coming before it hits but it still stings. You don’t want it but at the same time you know that it can’t end any other way. Lovely all around.

(Baffling Magazine, January 2024; issue 14)

“The Doomsday Book of Labyrinths” by LM Zaerr

Crispin is a tax assessor of shops that sell labyrinths. When he arrives at Flat Rainbows, he finds his greatest challenge yet. A young boy, left to fend for himself, occupies the shop. Crispin is sucked into the boy’s orbit, and the terrible crime he uncovers will force him to choose between doing what’s right and doing what’s just. LM Zaerr did a great job writing an 8 year old stubborn enough to be annoying but earnest enough to be endearing. 

(Uncharted, January 11, 2024)

“The Feast of Baku & the Yume no Seirei” by Cheri Kamei

The old man and the monstrous creature “were neither allies nor enemies, but, come sunset, both were absolutely famished, and so their goal was the same. Their means, however, were somewhat at odds.” Baku and the seirei devour nightmares and dreams on the island of Dejima. While there’s not much of a plot, this feels like old folklore retold. Spirits walk the land of the living, devouring everything in their path, and all we can do is keep getting up every morning.

(Uncanny, January 2024; issue 56)

“The Imperfect Blue Marble” by  Rae Mariz

This online anthology, put together by the nonprofit media organization Grist, collects 12 stories of climate fiction looking ahead 180 years. All of the stories are worth reading, but Rae Mariz’s is probably my favorite. Our snarky storyteller recounts a tale of a nonverbal child who learns to communicate in his own way. His world doesn’t just tolerate him but accommodates him. The boy, Ben, visits a glassblower, and every day the artist is challenged to make a marble that satisfies Ben. Ben isn’t treated as picky or incompetent but as someone with particular interests that the world should appreciate. A warm, welcoming story about a future where people are loved for who they are, not shamed for who they aren’t.

(Imagine 2200, January 2024)

“The Invariant Speed of Destiny” by Phoebe Barton

Some flash fiction for you! “I think we were destined for each other,” you said as we disentangled limbs under the star-speckled sky, a year after we first met.” A couple are separated by time and space when one of them sets off on a tragic journey to Alpha Centauri. The narrator mulls over whether it was their lover’s destiny to board that spaceship and whether it even matters when the result is the same. Beautiful and sad yet hopeful. The takeaway isn’t that loving someone is too hard but that it’s worth it no matter what.

(Analog, January/February 2024)

“Totality” by Brandi Sperry

A total eclipse awakens some people to the memories of their past lives. Hannah, who lost her brother, Noah, discovers him years later as someone else. Noah’s personality peeks through, but so do the thousand other lives. New memories build on top of old ones. The afflicted are both themselves and not themselves, themselves but also everyone else they have ever been. A bittersweet story about change.

(The Deadlands, Winter 2024; issue 33) icon-paragraph-end

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