It’s hard to tell what someone is really made of, at least until you crack them open. Some have hearts fragile as spun glass, quick to break and impossible to put back together; others have iron in their chests heavy enough to weight the whole of their being. Hearts of diamond, hard but brittle; hearts with tiny cogs, tiny wheels, tiny dials counting down. Only the Volant knew how many they’d carved, or what they did with the old heart when they put the new one inside us. It wasn’t our place to ask.
More often than not I know whether I am going to like a story by the end of the first paragraph. This one had me instantly intrigued. The online magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies specialises in adventure fantasy set in made-up worlds and it’s a great place to go if you like leaving earth behind for ten minutes. Evan Dicken’s short story, “The Uncarved Heart,” is set in a world inhabited by two classes of people, both of whom are governed by the mysterious Volant. Our young narrator belongs to the upper class, who have the privilege of having their hearts removed by the Volant and replaced with mechanical devices. She is concerned that she has not yet been called to have her heart fitted ― all the other girls have their new hearts already. With her mother away in the army and her drug-addled father busy overseeing the harvesting of nightweed for the Volant, the young protagonist is left to her own devices. With no friends of her own class, she befriends a native called Izavel. Izavel is bright and engaging, far from the inhuman savage she is supposed to be.
What follows is partly fantasy thriller and partly a coming of age story. The narrator falls in love with her new friend and begins to question her parent’s authority, at which point her mother returns from war to inflict brutal retribution on the native people whose hearts are still their own. Our young protagonist is forced to choose where her loyalties lie, who she really is, and how she feels about her uncarved heart.
There were many things I loved here. I liked the shake-up of traditional gender stereotypes, with the mother as ruthless army leader and the blossoming romance between the two young girls. I liked the mystery surrounding the Volant who, for most of the story, are nothing more than a name that strikes fear into people’s hearts, be they carved or uncarved. Most of all I loved the beautiful description of the land and the people. The pacing was spot on, the tension slowly building and, though this may be a rather unhelpful way to put, I really “felt” this story. ~Katie Burton
Set in the same universe as his debut novel Dying of the Light, and published in Analog magazine in 1973, “With Morning Comes Mistfall,” was the first of George R.R. Martin’s stories to be nominated for an award — both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. It beautifully demonstrates the powerful writer that Martin was quickly becoming. The story takes place on Wraithworld, an almost uninhabited planet that is covered in mist for most of every day. The only manmade structure on the planet is a mountaintop castle that serves as a hotel to explorers who are searching for the elusive deadly wraiths who are thought to live on the planet’s surface. When a scientist shows up to try to debunk the myth of the wraiths, the owner of the castle gets upset.
This short story, which is brimming with beauty and atmosphere, has so much that I love about speculative fiction — interesting characters, exotic scenery, adventure and exploration, and a thoughtful way of looking at the world. As someone who yearns to know all the answers, I was touched by the message that the mystery of the unknown is sometimes better than the knowledge we seek.
I listened to the audio version of “With Morning Comes Mistfall,” which I acquired when it was given away as a freebie to Audible members. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be available as a single anymore (at least legally). It can be found in the collection Dreamsongs: A Retrospective Volume 1. ~Kat Hooper
“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon (1959, originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, republished 2009 and free at Strange Horizons, included in Volume X: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon). 1960 Hugo nomination (short story)
A boy, running through cold sand with a toy helicopter in his hand, encounters a man who is buried in the sand, wearing a pressure suit. They talk briefly; the grumpy and sick man sends the boy away. The man hears the pounding of the surf and sees the dark sea; within himself he feels a matching wave of nausea approaching and fights it off “with an undertow of weakness.”
Out and out the sick man forces his view, etching all he sees with a meticulous intensity, as if it might be his charge, one day, to duplicate all this. To his left is only starlit sea, windless. In front of him across the valley, rounded hills with dim white epaulettes of light. To his right, the jutting corner of the black wall against which his helmet rests. (He thinks the distant moundings of nausea becalmed, but he will not look yet.)
As the dreamlike story continues, the boy returns a couple more times with increasingly sophisticated toys, while the buried man recalls significant events in his past and somewhat hazily contemplates the scenery around him and a satellite moving across the sky.
“The Man Who Lost the Sea” is a story with a twist, and it hides the ball from the reader until the last few paragraphs. Initially that opacity made this a rather frustrating story to read, although it is beautifully written, with striking phrases like “this baby moon eats up its slice of shadowpie” that captured my attention. After grappling with it and putting the pieces together, I decided to give it a second read (it’s a fairly short story). Without the vexing confusion that accompanied my first read, I could appreciate the clues that Sturgeon gave to the true nature of plot and setting, as well as the beauty and the deeper meaning underlying this bittersweet but strangely triumphant tale. I strongly recommend reading this story … and doing it twice. ~Tadiana Jones
“Grotto of the Dancing Deer” by Clifford D. Simak (1980, originally published in Analog, free audio podcast at Escape Pod, collected in Grotto of the Dancing Deer: And Other Stories (The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak Book 4)). 1981 Hugo and 1980 Nebula (short story)
Boyd, an archeologist, is just finishing up his study of a cave near Gavarnie, France that contains prehistoric paintings and other ancient artifacts. The rest of the crew has left; only Boyd’s native assistant, Luis, remains in the area, passing the time by playing a primitive pipe made of bone. Boyd is oddly reluctant to leave the cave, haunted by a feeling that something he initially dismissed as unimportant might actually be significant.
After accepting a dinner invitation from Luis, Boyd returns to the cave and checks out a rock wall that was once broken, with the pieces of rock fitted back together. He pries out the pieces of rock and finds a fissure behind it. Boyd briefly struggles with his conscience, knowing he really shouldn’t enter the fissure without anyone else knowing where he is, but in the end the temptation to explore it proves irresistible. What he discovers at the end of the fissure is astounding ― and the more he examines what he finds there, the more fantastic it all becomes, especially when it ties back to the current era in a way that leads Boyd to only one possible conclusion, however difficult to believe.
“Grotto of the Dancing Deer” begins with a mystery ― which Boyd is able to unravel surprisingly quickly, with an improbable deductive leap ― and segues into a somewhat melancholy reflection on human nature, and how a man might react when his life takes a particular turn (avoiding spoilers here). There are many appealing details in the setting, and an intriguing reveal at the end that made me wish I could read the next chapter in Boyd’s life.
Norm Sherman narrates the podcast sotto voce with a portentous tone, which I found annoying, and he assigned the character Luis an accent that sounded like he came from Transylvania. I’m a hardcore fan of the written word and, as my introduction to the world of audiobooks, I thought this podcast left quite a bit to be desired. ~Tadiana Jones
Since Iris had her organic eye removed and chose the BrainSight implant, she has begun seeing a woman in the Mexico City subway. The woman seems familiar, as if from a dream, but Iris doesn’t know her. On the other hand, the unknown woman’s name is definitely Marina. Is she a dream, a memory, or something else?
As Iris searches for Marina she meets another woman named Adriana. Adriana has crystal wings, but they are not physically attached to her body. Rather, they are coded, tattooed on her skin to be read by Iris’s BrainSight implant and translated into glittering 3-D appendages. Adriana knows of Marina too; she knows more than Iris.
Mexico City has a layered, rich history and it is well-represented here. The title and the water images are particularly apt since Mexico City is built on the site of a dried-out lake. In between the descriptions of murals, colors and water imagery are sections in programming language, where most of the clues to the story lie. Are Adriana and Iris connected to a super intelligence? Is Marina its avatar? Is Iris’s “Mexico City” merely a construct, somewhere within a network? I didn’t completely understand Garcia-Rosas’s story of transhumanism and AI, but I loved the vivid descriptions and the dreamlike quality of this tale.
A note: I’m not overly fond of audio works, but after I’d read this story in text, I listened to the Clarkesworld podcast. Kate Baker’s soothing, slightly throaty voice and her deliberate cadence made the story even more of a dream-experience. I recommend reading the story and then listening to it. ~Marion Deeds
Jim Donnini is a tough teenager from Chicago’s south side who’s been living in a series of foster homes. When he ends up with a family in a sleepy small town, Jim is friendless, bored in school, and a troublemaker. When Mr. Helmholtz, the school’s band leader, notices Jim, his heart softens and he steps in to try to engage the boy. It will be a struggle for two people with such diverse backgrounds and experiences to connect, but Mr. Helmholtz realizes the importance of a single human life, and he has a way of seeing potential where none seems to exist. Perhaps music will be the tie that binds this man and boy together.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Kid Nobody Could Handle” is not a fantasy, but it’s a heart-warming story written early in the career of a speculative fiction writer whose work I admire. The story was published (and is freely available) in The Saturday Evening Post and can also be found in Vonnegut’s collection called Welcome to the Monkey House. ~Kat Hooper