Here is the next batch of short stories from Tor.com. I’ve collected together five stories which deal with near futures in which the world has changed: often clearly for the worse, but sometimes for the better with a poignant kick. Here we find people relieving others of pain or emotion; a virus that traps you in a fatal dream of happiness; and the cruelty of the fashion industry taken to extremes. And a reminder, should you need it, that dystopias don’t always need to be outside our own heads…
SOME GODS OF EL PASO: MARIA DAHVANA HEADLEY
Deep in the Midwest during the Great Depression, two chancers hit the road with their own very special talents to offer. Lorna and Vix are healers, siphoning off emotions from those who want to be rid of their pain, fury or loneliness, taking away the badness and shouldering it themselves. They are scintillating, legendary. Adored. In this alternate universe, where alcohol is banned and the desperate masses seek other forms of mood-alteration, Lorna and Vix realise that emotion can be repurposed as a powerfully addictive drug. Setting out to bring their mission to the world, these two are a Bonnie and Clyde with attitude: sexy, smart and on the run.
Illustration by Ashley Mackenzie
LA BEAUTÉ SANS VERTUE: GENEVIEVE VALENTINE
Illustration by Tran Nguyen
The waiflike forms of the catwalk have a disquieting update in this dark and twisted urban fairytale. Valentine imagines a world in which the fashion industry grafts dead children’s arms onto their models’ bodies for maximum thinness (“anything over fourteen isn’t worth having”). Sullen, gorgeous Maria is the new model taking the world by storm, petulant in just the right way, with a loose-limbed clarity that makes clothes shine. Hers is the name on everyone’s lips, but is she ready to embrace the controlling power of the fashion house? Despite the arm-grafting, there are moments where this feels horribly real. An uncomfortable glimpse of an unforgiving lifestyle.
SIC SEMPER, SIC SEMPER, SIC SEMPER: DOUGLAS F. WARRICK
This is a real brainteaser of a story, a literary matryoshka doll of the weirdest kind. I wasn’t always entirely sure what Warrick was trying to do, but it’s certainly unique. His protagonist is a misanthropic time-traveller who has devised the ultimate method of self-extinction. Slowing time to a glacial crawl, he sets up home in a miniature glass box within the skull of Abraham Lincoln, in the seconds before the assassin’s bullet enters the president’s brain. Here, in that long-lasting second, the time-traveller can enjoy his own company and contemplate mortality. But events soon remind him that mortality isn’t something grandly objective, but far more raw and intimate – and perhaps not quite so easy to shrug off. Bizarre and rather gory, this is a story that I found it very hard to like, but I can certainly appreciate its cleverness.
Illustration by Carl Wiens
A BURDEN SHARED: JO WALTON
What if you could take on someone else’s pain? Someone you loved. Someone who was suffering. You’d do it, wouldn’t you, if it gave them a short break; a chance to recover? And what if it was your child? Wouldn’t you want to find a way to keep them from pain as much as possible? For Penny and Noah, an ex-couple living in the age of transference, it is second nature to divide their daughter Ann’s pain up between them, alternating days throughout the week. As she struggles with a degenerative disease, her parents do what they can to ease her time. In this clever story, Walton imagines how such a technological advance might affect society: friends taking on the pain of others; starstruck schoolgirls competing to take the pain of a favourite celebrity. But, when we’re riven with agony, how do we find the dividing line between our own pain and someone else’s?
Illustration by Richie Pope
MENTAL DIPLOPIA: JULIANNA BAGGOTT
In the not-so-distant future, an incurable epidemic is sweeping the world: it’s irrevocably fatal but, strangely, not resented by its sufferers. For this virus brings you to death by steeping you in one moment from your past, often happy. Those who die do so in the presence of long-lost family and friends, reliving a moment of sheer joy. Around them, epidemiologists move in sealed suits, trying to understand the disease. As the survivors are driven into ever smaller retreats, our narrator, her colleagues and her lover Oliver continue to fight against the virus – even as security cameras reveal its cause. And Baggott asks us to think: how do we react, in this apocalyptic scenario? Do we fight on, regardless, facing the potential horror of utter loneliness in a deserted world? Do we try to understand? Or do we bravely go out and greet our doom, in all its glory? A beautiful and thought-provoking read.
Illustration by Ashley Mackenzie