Fantastical novellas and collections of short fiction can offer readers a brief respite from reality.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Tor.com, July), the slender first volume in Hugo Award–winner Becky Chambers’s Monk & Robot series, is dedicated to “anybody who could use a break.” Set in a future in which, freed from work obligations, intelligent robots disappeared from cities into the wilderness, the story follows Sibling Dex, a tea monk (job description: “listen to people, give tea”), who stumbles upon Mosscap, a robot, traversing wild terrain. As much a philosophical journey as a speculative one, the book fits squarely into the burgeoning hopepunk subgenre.
Other forthcoming works of speculative short fiction contain moments of recognition for the isolated and overwhelmed that may hit close to home despite their fanciful settings. Momo, protagonist of The Membranes by Chi Ta-wei (trans. from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich; Columbia Univ., June), works as an aesthetician in an undersea dome. The novella was originally published in Taiwan in 1995 but has contemporary resonance; as one client chastises, “Momo, you’re like a freak walled off by membranes and clinging desperately to your routines!”
In April, Verso is releasing the seven-story collection Terminal Boredom, the first English-language publication of work by Japanese counterculture figure Izumi Suzuki, who died in 1986. The title story tackles short attention spans overtly: “The youth of Tokyo have become unable to focus on anything for more than a moment,” Verso’s fiction editor, Cian McCourt, says, and the tale “treats short attention spans as treacherous things.”
In Lucy Ives’s speculative collection Cosmogony, which Soft Skull will release in March, one woman goes for a run and time-travels. Another, like Chi Ta-wei’s Momo, lives at the bottom of the ocean. Soft Skull editor-in-chief Yuka Igarashi says the use of varied genres and styles form a picture of “Lucy’s particular soul and mind but also of what it’s like to be alive, as a woman, today,” while diverting readers from everyday concerns. (See our q&a with Ives, “Hidden Narratives.”).
Stories in the debut fiction collections by Brenda Peynado and Whitney Collins share an element of offbeat, high-concept worldbuilding. In the title story of Collins’s Big Bad (Sarabande, Mar.), a young woman experiences the strangest sort of Groundhog Day, by giving birth to future versions of herself.
Margaux Weisman, editor at Penguin Books, says each story in Peynado’s The Rock Eaters (May) takes readers to “a completely different, fractured, glittering world,” whether set in a virtual reality or a surreal, sweltering Florida.
Haruki Murakami is a master of rendering “abnormal things happening to normal people,” as he put it in a publicity interview with his publisher. The eight short stories in First Person Singular (trans. from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel; Knopf, Apr.) are linked by their use, as the title implies, of first-person singular voice, sometimes toeing the line between fiction and memoir and leaving it to readers to decide. The collection provides “a crash course in his style and vision, blending passion for music and baseball and nostalgia for youth with portrayals of young love and moments of magical realism,” PW’s starred review said, offering “testament to Murakami’s talent and enduring creativity.”
At its most direct, speculative fiction offers glimpses of what life might be like in the future, an activity that can comfort as well as unsettle. For Flash Forward (Abrams ComicArts, Apr.), Rose Eveleth tasked graphic artists with answering, in comics form, the kinds of questions she poses in her Flash Forward Presents podcast: Will pop stars be avatars? Will future algorithms be able to detect truths from lies or will fake news reshape reality? Some scenarios are more possible than others, but all, as with other fictional works discussed here, offer readers fed up with sheltering in place a quick, and welcome, change of scenery.