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Welcome to our Editorial Page! As part of the yearly subscription package, Thomas J. Griffin and M.A. Dosser (the co-Editors-in-Chief) have written short commentaries on each and every story published by Flash Point SF. These editorials include examinations of craft from the perspective of the editors—how various elements of the storytelling worked for them on a technical level—as well as general impressions of each piece.

Ready to find out what makes each of these stories stand out? Click any of the titles below to reveal the contents.

2022

The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor by Alexandra Grunberg

Everyone loves a good paradox. Much like an optical illusion fascinates the eye, readers love to try to wrap their brain around something which fundamentally resists understanding. The “infinite” apartment complex in The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor is just that, but this story isn’t just a thought experiment. No, in order to take a story from merely intriguing to compelling and satisfying, the reader needs more. They need conflict.

And so, the elevators go out. This would be an inconvenience for anyone in any multi-level apartment complex, but when you’re nearly 1000 floors up? The intrigue inherent in the premise melds with the plot turn to create the perfect tale of woman vs. environment, and the sense of futility derived from our main character’s attempt to reach the bottom only heightens the tension. Then, right at the end, we’re given a glimmer of hope—are those street lamps? Is she finally approaching the bottom?

Alas, in keeping with the promise of the premise, there is no bottom, as there is no top. Those are only stars below.

-TJG

Read The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor 

We’ll Keep It on File by Jordan Chase-Young

Anyone who’s ever told a joke (which is to say, everyone ever) knows that it’s much harder to get a laugh than you think. What seems hilarious in your head often loses its clarity somewhere between brain and mouth, and then you’re standing there with your hands in your pockets and a silly, unreciprocated grin on your face, feeling foolish. 

This goes doubly for writing humor. Crafting a good set-up and delivering the punchline at just the right moment are learned skills. So is writing good situational humor, and that’s just what We’ll Keep It on File has done. It’s all about expectations, you see. The story unfolds as a scenario all too familiar to most—a job interview. There’s plenty of tension inherent there, and for good reason. The stakes are high and no one likes being judged, and this time it’s all of humanity, with all our many, many shortcomings, being evaluated. The risk of falling short of the interviewer’s expectations is apparent, and the author does a great job building that tension further through the interviewer’s pointed questions and disapproving tone. But then the “punchline” hits us—humanity is OVER-qualified. We’ve still been denied entry to the Galactic Federation, but not for being a mess of a species; no, we’re actually too mature and committed to progress, and that would make the other member species feel inadequate. Such a ridiculous logic is nothing if not funny because of how well it subverts our expectations.

-TJG

Read We’ll Keep It on File

And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe by Birgit K. Gaiser

There are many things I look for as an editor when evaluating a submission, but one of the most crucial, which often moves stories with a promising start into the DECLINE category, is a lack of effective tension building. Your story can have sparkling prose, a sympathetic main character, unique and fascinating worldbuilding, but if it can’t push me to the edge of my seat, if it can’t compel me to read the next line and the next with a growing sense of dread or anticipation in my gut, then it may not have what it takes. 

This doesn’t automatically mean big action set pieces or stunning revelations, however. Effective tension can be quiet. It can grow slowly as a vague, uneasy feeling, or quickly as an unstoppable sense of doom. It can even be a single, lingering doubt—can the protagonist pull this off? The tension employed in And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe is a more subtle variation, but it’s built perfectly for the purposes of this particular plot. Our narrator is set up as a voyeur, observing but not interacting, and their observations are vaguely predatory, just enough to set off alarm bells in the reader’s head. Then we learn of the curse, and the revelation of what may happen only heightens the sense of tension, because the danger is dismissed, despite what we the readers know must be true. And yet there’s nothing we can do about it—the show must go on. Every chance given to the character in danger builds our fear and frustration more. By the time the ritual occurs and the curse is fulfilled, we’re filled with a sense of tragic fate, and the tension is released. It’s not a happy ending, but that was never promised in the first place; only a thrilling ride. 

-TJG

Read And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe

Pen-pals by Alexander Hewitt

Tropes get a bad rap. So often we hear them spoken as a dirty word. They are regarded as something to avoid, on the grounds that they are “unoriginal” or trite, or otherwise low-hanging fruit for the lazy plotter. 

This can all be true, I suppose, if the author goes about their use of tropes in a lazy way, but what many fail to mention in their critiques is this: tropes are tropes for a reason. They involve situations and characterizations that are immediately recognizable and often universal, and since good writing is all about making a relatable connection with the reader, a good trope, used well, can be an invaluable tool. 

Pen-pals has done just that by taking a classic horror trope (a ghost writing threatening messages on the mirror in blood) and thoughtfully pairing it with a narrative tone that undercuts our expectations of horror, replacing it with humor and irony. If the author had played the trope straight, we as readers may well have lost interest because we knew, or at least could make an informed guess, where the story was headed. But by “inverting” the trope, they’ve signaled that this story will not be what we expect, and there’s no better way to spark the reader’s curiosity than by surprising them. 

-TJG

Read Pen-pals

Mixed Signals by Aeryn Rudel

Post-apocalyptic stories are so often bleak, filled with speculative horrors of what humanity will devolve into when our continued existence is all we have left to lose. “Mixed Signals” begins by showing Sam and Colton trying to get supplies from an unnamed woman, and, from the get go, Aeryn already paints hope into this bleak world. While the ominous threat of Cappers exists, this unnamed woman is willing to brave their dangers to supply the resistance. And our two protagonists have found more than comradery as they’ve traveled and worked together in the resistance–they have found love. 

What stuck out to me the most in this story is the decision Sam and Colton make at the end. They exist in a world where supplies are limited and they have been relying on the kindness of a woman who has never even told them her name in order to survive. Yet, upon seeing an infant, there is no debate. They will take this child with them, they will keep her safe and provided for like her mother kept them, and, when she’s old enough to ask, they will tell her about her mother. The decision alone displays the goodness of both of these characters, but the fact that neither of them ever suggest an alternative is what really gets to the ethos of hope and possibility that suffuses “Mixed Signals.” 

– MAD

Read Mixed Signals

The Queen by Teresa Milbrodt

If you’ve seen ScreenRant’s “Pitch Meeting” series, you may know that a common trend in cinema is that villains are so often evil for evil’s sake. They lack motivation and seemingly only exist so the protagonist can have someone to foil. This isn’t always the case, of course. Some of the best villains, regardless of the media, are those that, when they’re given their moment, are nearly able to persuade the hero (and even the audience) to their point of view. The protagonist then has to question what they thought was true and decide how they plan to move forward. Sometimes I’m extremely frustrated with the protagonist for the path they chose; other times I’m jubilant and feel a deep satisfaction.

In “The Queen,” Teresa flips the typical script by crafting a great villain who is also our protagonist. Rather than having the story follow the person from the village who confronts the eponymous queen, the reader is with the queen the entire time. We hear her reasoning (she has to preserve the health and safety of the fairies and elves under her protection) and how she appealed to the villagers many times (even providing them with an alternative). We know the queen, even with her justifications, has done terrible things and murdered nearly the entire population of *at least* one village. We even hear her be fairly blasé about it. But when the potential hero’s swordpoint is at the queen’s breast and her only reaction is to proffer the villager a cup of tea, you can’t help but think: what would I do? And that moment, not one of frustration or satisication for what the villager chooses, but an immediate interpellation of the reader, makes “The Queen” all the more satisfying to read again and again. Particularly as your answer may change from day to day, moment to moment.

– MAD

Read The Queen

Time Accounted For by James Harris

At the end of 2021, I was reading a lot of Ted Chiang. This story grabbed me as being a piece with the deterministic themes in Chiang’s works involving time, particularly “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” We have published a number of stories that involve time travel at Flash Point SF, but this was the first where rather than the time travel being used to change an event, it was the cause. The narrator could not prevent Max’s injury through time traveling because the narrator’s attempt was the reason the injury happened to begin with. This kind of determinism elides the paradox inherent in so many time travel stories, where a person travels back to the past to change something, which will then change the future to the point that the person will never have a reason to travel back in the first place (for a great example of this, see the Futurama episode “Decision 3012.”) This isn’t the case in “Time Accounted For.” Instead, the true tragedy is the knowledge that the younger version of the narrator will work for years to prevent something that he will inevitably cause. 

– MAD

Read Time Accounted For

The Daily Communion by Patrick Hurley

Everyone’s heard the writing maxim “show, don’t tell,” but like all advice, what works well for someone, or some project, might not be as helpful for others. Case in point: The Daily Communion. With this story the opposite is true. 

There are two basic ways to narrate fiction: by summarizing action, or by dramatizing it. These distinctions are fairly self-explanatory, but it’s worth noting that dramatic narration is usually what people point to when they think of compelling prose, because it’s where the story feels most immediate, where the characters act in real time, where they converse and move and think and feel. 

The Daily Communion, by contrast, is written mostly in summary. You could argue that the narration isn’t even describing “actual” events (I mean, no work of fiction is, but that’s beside the point); instead, the story amounts to one big, hypothetical “for instance” of how the acolytes of Viaremora typically behave. There is no “drama.” And yet it works. But why?

For me, it comes down to a few things. First and foremost, it never hurts to be funny, and this story is hilarious, if in an understated fashion. Second, and if I said it once I’ve said it a million times, make your story relatable. Here, The Daily Communion picks the lowest of the hanging fruit–who among us doesn’t have visceral, perhaps rageful, memories of being stuck in crawling, senseless traffic? I can put myself there in an instant, can’t you? And third, and we’re gonna tie it all together here… sometimes people just love a good explanation. “Show don’t tell” is fine, and drama can be fun, but give me a good conspiracy theory, even a ridiculous one, and I’m hooked. You’re telling me there’s a reason for all the senseless traffic we wade through every morning? That it’s not just the banality of life, or random events of entropy unfolding in the most annoying way possible, but a deliberate act of emotional sabotage designed to feed a wanton god? There’s a reason conspiracy theories like the Illuminati, lizard people, ancient aliens, and so much more persist despite all evidence to the contrary, and it’s because making the mundane and relatable into something spectacular and compelling is one of the best ways there is for catching a reader’s attention. 

-TJG

Read The Daily Communion

Storm Wolves by Nathan Slemp

So much of Sci-fi and Fantasy is looking forward. How would this or that technology change the world? How would this event or that person or this encounter affect our future? Forecasting what’s to come has always been a celebrated part of the genre, but every once in a while, it can be just as fun to look back instead.

Secret Histories do just that, but in order to craft a believable narrative in this subgenre, you have to be willing and able to write in the margins of the textbook, in between the lines of the established “truth.” And to do this, Secret Histories must feel plausible. Could a special forces unit of werewolves have really wreaked havoc behind enemy lines in World War II? Maybe, but their impact would have to be slight, their mission covert, or else we’d have heard about them, right? The author of Storm Wolves understands this perfectly. If the Storm Wolves were out there winning the war single-handedly, storming the beaches, halting the German advance, killing Hitler in a theater full of Nazi brass (I’m looking at you, Tarantino), then the story loses its plausibility, and becomes something else altogether–Alternate History. Alternate Histories are fun too, but they’re a different thing, and like most sci-fi they are more forward-looking; they still ask how a certain thing might change the future, they’re simply looking at the future from some point in the past. 

If you’re wanting to write your own Secret History, don’t ask “how does this change the future?” Instead ask, “what have the stories of the past left unsaid?” It’s the intrigue implicit in this question which drives a good Secret History.

-TJG

Read Storm Wolves

One More Sunrise by S.J.C. Schreiber

A relatable theme is often what takes a story from good to great, but finding that something that resonates with the reader is easier said than done. It’s not as simple as identifying a universal truism (tis better to have loved and lost, yada yada) and then typing out the right keywords; you have to make the reader believe that the struggle is real. Readers can smell disingenuous sentiment from a mile away, so in order for a theme to become relatable, several elements have to align. It’s not enough to simply present your character with an obstacle. Their motivation for overcoming it must be sincere and grounded in their characterization. They must grapple earnestly with that obstacle, and whether or not they succeed, the stakes and the cost should be apparent. What did they give up in order to succeed? What did they lose through failure? Can we see the weight of those compromises in the actions and thoughts of the character moving forward?

One More Sunrise takes on a theme that I think many of us are all too familiar with these days. I like to think of themes as questions the story asks both the character and the reader, and for me the question here is, “What’s to be done in the face of despair?” As in real life, the world of the story faces a pandemic, though this version is much more severe, and it’s left our character stranded on the moon with no way home and no hope of rescue. It’s a nightmarish situation, and one that an empathetic reader will be immediately gripped by. “What would I do in that situation?” is always a question you want your reader to ask, because it means you’ve hooked them, but (importantly, I think) the character doesn’t answer that question in the way we expect. We can see the narrator grappling with the despair, but their answer to the central thematic question isn’t to capitulate; rather, they reach for silver linings, displaying resilience and mental fortitude in the face of overwhelming circumstance. It’s an important message, deftly crafted into the plot in such a way that the reader has, hopefully, learned something about themselves through their own interaction with the story. 

-TJG

Read One More Sunrise

2021

Spring or Winter’s Respite by Cameron Hunter

2021 was a difficult year for many people. 2020 was too. And it looks like 2022 will be as well. With all the difficulties and uncertainty in the world, this story really stood out for the moments of hope amidst the misery. This is a post-apocalyptic world in the vein of Children of Men. Not to that extent yet–as the lab is set to deliver its third child of the day–but it does seem to be moving in that direction. And Cameron makes the wise choice to not really explain why certain things have happened. There are brief gestures to the lowering sperm count in men and mentions that women do not want to risk pregnancy “for a multitude of reasons,” but it doesn’t go much beyond that. We know that the world has become a place that most people do not want to bring children into, even when there is the ability to do so through Dylan’s business. And that’s all we really need to know. The reader fills in the rest as we are given a tight, focused look at Dylan, preparing to ship/fly a child to her waiting parent(s).

It is Dylan’s interaction with the baby and the final moments of the story that made us decide this would be a perfect story for the end of 2021. Dylan’s business is failing and he’s lost some of the moments he most looked forward to, where he could see a nearly unprecedented view of the world from the mechanized stork’s camera. Yet, when he sees this infant, he is compelled to interact with her until she smiles, to bring joy to her, to himself, and to the reader who has just been confronted with the realities of this future. Then Cameron offers hope. We’re told many people don’t want to bring children into the world as it currently is, but this child will be able to have “her own opinions, her own opportunities to change things, her own future and squandered or realized potential.” And she’ll have her parent(s), for whom the delivery of this baby, Cameron spells out, could be the delivery of hope and meaning. As the baby coos in wonder as the stork carries her away, I couldn’t help but feel warm and think that there may be a deliverance of hope. At least eventually. That hope could be a child, a new job, a treatment, a message of love and caring from one close to us, or whatever the mechanized stork may carry.

– MAD

Read Spring or Winter’s Respite

A Little Good Magic by Jamie Lackey

The epistolary form can be hard to pull off. When presented through the guise of a letter or journal, the necessities of exposition and plot can feel unnatural if they aren’t handled with care and a soft touch. Would someone writing an entry in their personal diary really go to the trouble of explaining setting and character backstories, or would they just write, “Jan was mean to me again today,” foregoing superfluous details?

A Little Good Magic navigates this medium perfectly, though it does help that the main character, Lisa, is writing to Santa (who can see you when you’re sleeping, don’t forget). This allows her to touch lightly upon her ever-changing circumstances without weighing the prose down with repeated exposition. It requires a lot of faith in the reader, who is mostly left to put two and two together by themselves, but it keeps the story concise and immediate.  

-TJG

Read A Little Good Magic

You Are Not a Player Character by Greta Hayer

What makes You Are Not a Player Character such an enjoyable read is how relatable it is, though I do wonder if that relatability will be felt universally. This feels like a distinctly Millennial story to me, as I was immediately caught up by memories of playing RPG video games like Skyrim, The Witcher, Runescape, and more. It’s a strange thing to observe the NPCs (non-player characters) of games such as those. Their routines revolve like clockwork, and as your hero galivants around the map, it becomes all too easy to use and abuse those NPCs to your benefit. The morality of your actions never come into play because the point is moot; no one lives behind the blank stares, the scripted responses. They’re bits of code which only exist to serve you, to facilitate the completion of whatever quest you happen to be on.

But what if someone did live within that code? In asking that question, You Are Not a Player Character instantly becomes a haunting exploration into the nature of free will and consequence. What kinds of things would we allow ourselves to do, if we truly thought no one was watching? It’s an idea that almost feels too big for a single flash piece, but the author plays it perfectly, asking the question, then letting us decide how to feel and what to think.

-TJG

Read You Are Not a Player Character

Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit by Candace Cunard

Make the strange familiar(!!!)

I feel like I write a lot about the importance of making your story relatable, but that’s because it is important. Crafting a relatable idea, circumstance, or character is the quickest and surest way to engage with your reader, and Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit does just that in a really fun way. Everyone knows what it’s like to read hysterical Amazon reviews or irate YouTube comments, but by taking something strange and fantastical—a demon summoning circle—and making light of it in this familiar context, the story marries the interesting with the mundane and makes it relatable. Just the idea of customer reviews for a demon summoning circle is patently ridiculous, and it’s that juxtaposition that gives the story its humor.

-TJG

Read Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit

A Voice in the Winter by Shawn Kobb

I’m not being trite when I say this story is magical in the best way. For any story utilizing magic, we ask the readers to believe in something unbelievable, and to that end, it helps if we give our magic rules. A thing defined is a thing understood. Good stories then give depth to the magic as the plot progresses by showing how it’s applied firsthand within the boundaries we’ve set. 

Great stories take their magic one step further, not by breaking the rules, but by bending them, giving them nuance, showing how unexpected things can still happen within these boundaries, and that’s exactly what A Voice in the Winter has done. Through its magic it creates an engaging world with a unique dilemma, then hits us with a surprising, but absolutely fitting, twist to create that satisfying ending.

-TJG

Read A Voice in the Winter

I Don’t Burn Like You by Katherine Sankey

Writing flash fiction that stands on its own is difficult, and the fewer words you use, the harder it is to tell a complete story. It raises the difficulty even more when you attempt to subvert expectations within flash, yet Katherine was able to tell a complete story with a surprise punch at the end in a Drabble-length piece. The setting is one familiar to most readers, evoking witch-hunts and, for this US American, the Salem Witch Trials. Rather than a fantasy, however, this is science fiction. As always, these men accusing a woman of witchcraft are wrong. This time, though, the men are the ones to suffer, as the woman they are burning has a metallic form under her simulacra of flesh. And when the coating burns off, noxious gas is released that kills the men and leaves our narrator unharmed.

The reason the ending is such a surprise comes from our genre expectations. The narrator describes the ordeal as interesting, which is not a word most in this situation would use. Then the men’s pricks draw no blood, which is another sign that something isn’t right. The narrator even warns them that she doesn’t burn like they do–separating herself from them. But the reveal that the narrator is metallic rather than magical plays on the audience’s expectations. It is a “twist” that is perfectly telegraphed and, upon reread, is clear as day. The brevity of the piece only makes the ending’s punch hit harder.

– MAD

Read I Don’t Burn Like You

The Unchecked Box by Douglas DiCicco

While I am not a galactic emperor, I connected to Gorgalax’s plight in many ways. My second year as a PhD student, I was teaching at three colleges, taking four graduate seminars a semester, trying to publish articles, and working on my comprehensive exams. Plus editing Flash Point SF, getting married, and overindulging in junk food. It felt like there was so much going on and I was constantly working. Then, seemingly at once, I finished my coursework, I started only teaching for two schools, I passed my comps and had my prospectus approved, my articles drafts were submitted or published, Flash Point closed submissions, and I got married. I had time on my hands. And I had no idea what to do with myself. I, like Gorgalax, was consumed by boredom and found myself feeling increasingly depressed. After working so hard for so long to achieve a goal, I felt like I lacked a purpose. I felt adrift, like I was wasting time when I could have been doing other things (Note to readers: Relaxation is important. Don’t be like me.)

Unlike the sad paragraph I just wrote, Douglas’s story is very funny. Chris, Thomas, and I all noted how we laughed out loud following Gorgalax’s attempt at a knitting circle. But I include that description because there’s something extremely relatable in Gorgalax’s story. Even this ultra-powerful space emperor could feel adrift and struggle when the only thing they have left to accomplish is to relax and be finished with their task. Gorgalax jumps at the first chance he gets to return to the work he feels he’s best at after many failed attempts at hobbies. Hopefully others can find something that makes us happy and gives us purpose, or even accept that when a task is finished, we should take time to celebrate and bask in that moment. We check that last box, then we start a new list, just as I imagine Gorgalax will do as he takes down the newest rebellion.

– MAD

Read The Unchecked Box

The Memorial by Jon Hansen

If you asked me to define satire, I would probably struggle. It’s not humor, precisely, though good satire often uses humor effectively. And yet, it also doesn’t have to be serious–in fact, sometimes the more ridiculous the scenario, the better the message is conveyed. It’s not a sermon either; all satire functions to make a point, but with good satire the point is felt, not heard. No grand soliloquies with a character bluntly stating, “this is an example of a bad thing, and here is why it’s bad.” Instead, it’s demonstrated through the events of the scene, and the honest reactions of the characters to an untenable condition. Good satire presents us with a problem, then makes us stand face-to-face with those most affected. We can’t help but empathize, and through that empathy we learn a lesson. 

Again, satire is hard to define. In the end, it’s like porn–I know it when I see it. 

The idea of tearing down statues, and of questioning their legitimacy as pieces of enduring history, has been the subject of heated debate in America for a while now, but The Memorial tackles it with real cleverness. Through the statue of Baaolruith the First, we’re suddenly forced to wonder what other controversial statues might say if they could talk, and whether they’re really representing objective history, or simply the point of view of the individual they depict. Furthermore, how might that point of view run in contrast to the values we seek to uphold? It’s a question worthy of deep consideration, and we’re all the more willing to consider it because at no point do we feel talked down to, lectured or scolded. That’s the magic of satire. 

-TJG

Read The Memorial 

Ward F by William Kortbein

How much does a good premise matter when writing a story? Jim Butcher would argue not at all. Famously, the DRESDEN FILES author bet a fan that ideas didn’t matter, execution did, and to prove it he asked the fan for two lame ideas which he would then turn into a workable story. The fan suggested “Pokemon” and “The Lost Roman legion.” Jim took those prompts and ended up writing a best-selling, six-novel fantasy series called THE CODEX ALERA. 

…That said, a strong premise never hurts, and in Ward F we find an incredible sci-fi concept fulfilled by strong writing. The best SF stories, for me, are those that make me think as well as feel, and Ward F does that in spades. From the moment you become aware of the conflict’s true nature, the entire story becomes new. It’s the kind of twist that compels you to go back and read from the beginning, challenging you to apply what you’ve learned to the words. It’s brain-bending fun in the best way. 

-TJG

Read Ward F

One Last Trip by Teresa Pham-Carsillo

Time travel is a classic speculative fiction technology, being featured in works that pre-date Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. With the idea being so prominent in SF writing, there are a lot of opinions about what make a “good” or a “bad” time travel story. To me, Teresa’s story is excellent in how it ties the idea of time travel to confronting grief. When I was reading it, the bit where the narrator says that meeting a past version of yourself can lead to an “accidental annihilation of the current self, a self-immolation like the lit end of a cigarette pressed to the exact place you inhabited in the fabric of space and time” then follows that with “But this was my very reason for returning” really grabbed me. This story really feels like it’s about finding a way to deal with grief. Or perhaps a more accurate but crasser way of phrasing this: to use grief. In this story, grief led the narrator to build a time machine, meticulously test it, then use it to correct a wrong for which she blamed herself. 

The ending line of this story–that the narrator let go–raises questions as to what she’s letting go of. Is it her life (the clearest option) or is it her grief and guilt now that, through her own destruction, has been rectified in a new timeline? The scenes at the bar feel so lived in and true (at least from my own experience of crying over broken hearts to my friends and sister) and the wreck so devastating, that you can really understand the narrator’s grief-fuelled construction of her own demise. Yet, despite this doom and gloom assessment so far, the story doesn’t end merely with our narrator fading out of existence. It ends with a memory. A memory of a rabbit, one suffused with warmth and life, experiencing a new timeline. This memory provides a ray of hope that our narrator’s efforts are worth it. That her grief led to creating something great.

– MAD

Read One Last Trip 

By Any Other by Kristin Osani

There’s almost something alchemical to a good title. I’ve read dozens upon dozens of books, articles, and blog posts about the craft of fiction writing, but never once have I seen anyone try their hand at a “How To” for good story titles. The best seem to act as a sort of refrain for the piece they represent, highlighting some theme or event within the larger text in such a way that the title itself feels richer and more meaningful the further into the story one goes.

But how to come up with such a title? Beats me.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that titles stand out to me all the more as stories get shorter. With so few words to tell the tale, every single one counts, title included. It’s not just a name–it’s in conversation with the piece, lending context, framing. By Any Other is the perfect example of this, the story’s theme distilled down to three words. It’s not even a complete sentence(!), but it’s such a recognizable phrase that we all know how to finish the thought for the author, especially after we’ve read the story and understand its why

-TJG

Read By Any Other

The Set-Up by David Far

“Surprising yet inevitable.” Maybe you’ve heard this phrase thrown around before in narrative circles, but in case you haven’t, it’s nothing more than an attempt to sum up what makes a good twist ending. The “surprising” should be self-evident—it’s not a twist if it doesn’t surprise—but the important bit, for my money, is that “yet inevitable” on the back end. Good twists are so hard to pull off because they’re a verbal slight of hand. Show your hand too much, and your twist becomes predictable, but you need to show something, or you run the risk of making your reader feel confused or worse, foolish. Once the initial shock of the twist has worn off, there should always be moments in the text that the reader can call back to and say, “Ah, the clue was right here the whole time! I should have known!”

The Set-Up is a masterclass in twist endings. All the hints are right there in the text, but the narration doesn’t call them out; instead, it uses them as supporting evidence for an equally probable (and more preferable) alternative scenario, which will only unravel at the appointed hour, when the revelation of truth will be at its most devastating. 

You should always count on the narrator to give you the facts—just don’t expect the narrator to tell you the truth about them. They don’t call them “unreliable” for nothing. 

-TJG

Read The Set-Up

Heaven Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be by Karl El-Koura

This story is a study in dramatic irony. As the reader, we recognize fairly early on that the narrator isn’t in Heaven at all, but the other place, and it’s that awareness that lends the piece its humor. This dramatic irony is executed well throughout, but there’s one paragraph in particular, I think, around which the story’s humor turns.

“Second, there’s the heat…” 

If you didn’t pick up on the joke right from the start, this paragraph is a dead giveaway. Hell is hot, Heaven’s not, but even though it rather obviously lets the reader in on the joke, it still works for a couple reasons. First, it’s an implied twist rather than an overt one. The reader is now aware of the irony of the narrator’s words, while the narrator remains oblivious. Second, it comes early enough that the reader is now in on the joke for most of the story, making the reading experience that much more enjoyable. Twists don’t have to come at the end. That’s where we usually find them, and when done right they serve to shine new light back upon what we’ve just read, but in this case it actually works better coming earlier. The author isn’t trying to blow anyone’s mind; he wants to give you a reason to keep reading what would otherwise be a pretty scathing Yelp review of Heaven. 

-TJG

I openly admit that I didn’t pick up on the twist as early as Thomas did. For me, the “Second, there’s the heat” paragraph (and really that sentence) was when the lightbulb went off. Up until then, my main thought was “If we accept this, my mother will be furious with me.” Even before my realization, however, I was impressed with the witty prose and drawn into the piece. Afterwards, I found the dramatic irony both funny and exceptionally well executed. It pulls directly from the reader’s expectations and builds to the point where Karl switches from winking at the reader to nudging them in the ribs with “Hell, I’d settle for a middle-management type…”

I agree with Thomas that one of the strongest aspects of Karl’s story is that the twist comes early enough that rather than shining a new light on the story you’ve just read, you get to enjoy the bulk of the piece aware of the twist while the narrator is oblivious. I, personally, felt quite intelligent and doffed my tweed jacket and elbow patches upon figuring it out at the start of the third paragraph, seeing there was over half of the story to go. It doesn’t hurt that the story is funny regardless of if you catch on from the get go or you don’t realize until the narrator admits that they didn’t not give into their baser instincts while still alive.

-MAD

Read Heaven Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be

Amanita by Dawn Vogel

With Amanita, it’s all about the sensory details. The idea of a psychedelic, pseudo-magical mushroom trip isn’t enough; the author combines sight, touch, taste, and smell in concrete ways that draw the reader in and make the experience feel real and concrete in our minds. 

This story also does well to cultivate a sense of danger. “There was a fine line between poisoned to death and poisoned to dream” is such a strong sentence because it serves multiple ends, letting us know what the mushrooms are for, as well as alerting us to their risks. This gives the story a baseline tension that Amanita maintains throughout as she works against the clock to draw her charges out of their dreams before she herself succumbs to the mushrooms’ poison.

-TJG 

Read Amanita

Giving Up the Ghost by Aeryn Rudel

I’ve written elsewhere about how time travel is a classic speculative fiction device, one that we have seen often in film, television, novels, etc. This story, however, really surprised me in the best way possible. One reason was the stipulation of the time travel: you get three hours. One implication of this is that after the job is done, you still have time in whatever timeline you are in before you come back to the present to see if everything has changed. And that period of time after was the most surprising aspect of this story. When I first read this, I assumed the job our narrator was sent to do would take up most of the narrative. The expectation is set as an older agent travels twenty-nine years into the past along with a silenced .22 pistol that this will be an action-packed thriller in the vein of Looper. But it ends up being so much more than that. 

The scenes with the narrator and her father drip with emotion, and it is clear even before the narrator says it explicitly that she lost her father sometime between 1992 and 2021. The reunion is heart wrenching for the narrator and for the reader. It’s also something I feel many stories would relegate to a brief interlude between action. This piece reminds me of how Vince Gilligan said Breaking Bad was about the moments in between, where we see characters taking care of the things that most films and series skip over. This story is largely about the moment in between the assassination and the return to the future. It’s about a daughter getting to connect with her deceased father and telling him one last time that she loves him. And it’s all the better for focusing on the emotion over the action.

– MAD

Read Giving Up the Ghost

Never-ending Dawn by MM Schreier

Frame tales are tricky. Too often the frame itself feels like a gimmick, a means to an end. The author wants to tell a story a certain way, but they can’t find a natural opening, or they want to ease the reader into the action, introduce the characters and give the real story context so we fully appreciate what’s going on when we finally get to the good stuff. And thus, a frame is born.

What makes Never-ending Dawn so clever is that the tale-within-the-tale does this in return for the frame, giving it depth and stakes we didn’t realize were present at the story’s beginning. This is how a good frame tale works, by making the frame count for more than just set up. In fact, the frame is where the heart of this story actually resides, in Ella’s present, where she still carries with her the consequences of her past choices, as well as the weight of more hard choices to come. 

-TJG

Read Never-ending Dawn

Alien Taxidermy and Love Have Four Things in Common by Addison Smith

There are two things I think whenever I read this story. The first is that I can’t help but hear it narrated in Sam Elliott’s deep drawl, which is probably pretty idiosyncratic to me and not at all what Addison intended. But maybe! The second is that I’m amazed with how Addison weaves together the description of the taxidermy process and the narrator’s lost love, especially in the second half where the two feel inseparable. The taxidermy portions provide such detailed description of this space chicken that even without knowledge of what goes into taxidermy, it feels real. And the love that’s expressed throughout is both tragic and visceral. You can feel the pain and the warmth through the prose. When the narrator describes the fear that held them back–a single-sentence paragraph in the middle of longer, more clinical descriptions–it feels like the love, the pain, and the regret is bursting out, unable to be contained. Elsewhere, the passages on love fit seamlessly into the end of taxidermy-focused paragraphs, indicating how the narrator’s love for this person infuses everything they do.

I particularly enjoy how the ending functions in the narrative. It both explains what we have read before, giving the reader a greater appreciation and understanding of the story on a reread, and completes the arc of the narrator. The narrator has expressed fear, regret and longing, but the end is where the narrator takes a stand and makes a definitive statement. It’s no longer that the narrator imagines catching their love as they fall from the sky or reflecting on how they should have done more. Instead, it ends with a promise of growth, reuniting, and, of course, of love.

– MAD

Read Alien Taxidermy and Love Have Four Things in Common

From Iron Freed by Laura Duerr

Often in submitted flash pieces, we see that authors choose between focusing on developing the narrative or the worldbuilding–either giving us a compelling story with interesting characters or a world that is fleshed out and immersive. It is rare that we get both, but Laura, in this story, provides an incredibly well-described world, with visuals that leap off the page, as well as a narrative that provides a beginning, middle, and end. From the gown Gwen wears as she assists the magician on stage, to Gwen’s race through Venice, to the depiction of the fae at the portal, every moment of the story is drawn with vivid prose that paints the backdrop to a story of women retaliating against and escaping a rapist.

In the notes on the illustration, Laura told Kevin that as the story was set in the 1880s-90s, the inspiration for the outfits could come from something like The Prestige. As The Prestige was/still is one of my favorite films, I immediately drew this connection while reading, which only heightened my enjoyment of it. But while Christopher Nolan uses science to fuel his fantasy in The Prestige, Laura fully embraces the magical elements, combining a magician of the period with fae folk. While real magic brings the fae into the world and real magic allows Gwen to escape it, the narrative is grounded through the realization and actions of Gwen, the only non-magical character in the narrative.

– MAD

Read From Iron Freed

The Glitter and the Grey by Matt McHugh

If you’ve come to the editorials looking for hints and tips about what we as editors want, I’ll start this with one: I have a major soft spot for stories that involve music. Thomas does too. Music is something that is often referred to as “universal” (I’m pretty sure there was a Harvard study in 2019 that gained attention in the popular press that called music a “universal language,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it back in the 1800s as well). Cultures from around the world have independently developed their own instruments, styles, and traditions involving music. Yet, much like the beauty pageant Miss Universe, this concept of “universal” is contained to our planet. Speculative Fiction, then, allows us to take this universal language and see it play out across the universe. Who would have thought there was Jazz (or I guess more accurately “Jizz”) on Tatooine? And music is central to stories by SF authors like Kingsley Amis and J.G. Ballard. 

With the universality of music, it makes sense that first contact could be handled well by those with great skill in this universal language, which is exactly what Matt does in this piece. As fourteen coiffed and gowned matronly musicians meet fourteen classic Roswell Greys, there is no strife. Both groups seek to learn about one another and share their own cultures. While many stories are coy with their themes, Matt has the theme spoken loudly and clearly by Lady Racine, and ends the story with the start of the chorus to the song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

– MAD

Read The Glitter and the Grey

Pink Marble by Zoe Kaplan

Opening lines can make or break a story. Fail to captivate a reader in those first few moments and they might quit on you before they ever get to “the good part.”

The author of Pink Marble understood the assignment. There’s nothing fancy or complicated about “The Queen had turned to stone,” but therein lies its power. The line is direct and concise, telling you exactly what’s happened (ostensibly), and yet there’s a compelling question inherent to the sentence: HOW did the Queen turn to stone? A good mystery, perhaps more than any other literary device, will keep readers turning the page.

This story’s style is also a winner. It calls to mind the opening passages of a classic fairy tale, and the narrative tone is laced with a subtle dramatic irony that can only be fully appreciated once the story is finished and the twist revealed. Pink Marble was one of our most popular stories for all of 2021 and it’s not hard to see why. 

-TJG

Read Pink Marble

DEPLOY by C.T. Dinh

Speculative fiction is an ideal cultural technology for imagining futures that could be. In this story, C.T. does a wonderful job succinctly painting a version of our future. Einstein was wrong (how about that). World War IV wasn’t fought with sticks and stones, because World War III never happened. Instead, it was more like a war of many worlds. This story does an excellent job of smuggling much larger worldbuilding ideas into a fairly contained story about one woman’s mental turmoil as she accomplished her work assignment. Of course, Pallas is about to collapse a star, so a bit of existential doubt would seem reasonable. But the way other characters react is notable. Xenozoologists have checked out the system nine lightyears away as if it’s a typical task, she has a manager who told her to relax and compares the collapse to dominos, and while her coworkers watch her intently, there is no pomp and circumstance. The storyworld C.T. crafts is one in which collapsing a star, while a big deal for Pallas as an individual, seems somewhat mundane. Even the ending conveys this, where Pallas completes the job, but all that happens is a display notice that the deployment was successful. No big bang, no celebration, just more waiting to see if anything actually happened. This future is fleshed out through details small and large and turns what we would consider grandiose into humdrum for these characters. 

Due to this take on the future, the most affecting part of the story is when Pallas imagines going home and seeing her sons. Similar to the end-of-day dinner conversations many of us have, when Pallas thinks about how she’ll respond to a question about how her day was, she’ll merely answer fine. Because that’s what it will be. Throughout the entire piece, C.T. creates a world that is so lived in that the typical wonder of speculative fiction is confined to the thoughts of one person, while the rest of the world (or even rest of the universe) continues as if collapsing a star just happens.

– MAD

Read DEPLOY

The Wreck of the Douceur Suprême by Karter Mycroft

This story grabbed me from the very beginning, and not just because it had a great opening line. Rather, Karter included a footnote on the title. A footnote in French. This combined with the opening line about it not being easy to sail on a box of Kleenex perfectly sets the tone for this story. But then the story surprises you with a deeply emotional core. The narrator and the rest of the crew choose their survival over their captain, resulting in a mutiny that may or may not have been necessary for their final arrival in the paradise that is the great desert of linens. The debated regret in the final paragraphs and the Moon’s potential wry smile in the epilogue provide a wonderfully emotional ending that somehow completely fits with the tone Karter establishes in the opening lines.

I feel I have to mention the art direction meeting for the story’s illustration as well. Another thing that I love about this piece is that Karter crafts an immersive world while also leaving a lot of the imagery completely up to the reader’s imagination. Our artist, Kevin, had a clear vision of what the sailors should look like–one that completely ran against what Chris, Thomas, and I thought. We debated how specific Kevin should get with the art, and we ended up deciding to focus on the ship rather than the sailors–letting the reader come to their conclusion of what these sailors with their lost shedhair pasta and soapscum snacks would look like. 

– MAD

Read The Wreck of the Douceur Suprême

Welcome Aboard by Simon Kewin

The humor in this was what immediately grabbed me and the class critique was what kept me invested for the long haul. The writing perfectly captures the tone of a pre-flight message, only instead of telling passengers to keep their trays in an upright position, the announcement lets them know that DwarfStar passengers should remain calm if they wake up and find themselves paralyzed. Then offers no further information.

This aspect of three tiers of passengers works in a delightfully dark comic critique. While NovaStar passengers are told they have access to gyms, bars, pools, and even theaters, the MainSequence passengers are told “room is inevitably limited on an interplanetary spaceship.” Then the DwarfStar passengers are told to get in orderly lines for their anesthesia. What is imposed as a restriction on one group of people is gleefully given to others. Yet in this construction of the narrative, the information is freely given and spelled out to all passengers, who presumably accept the divisions as part of the flight. This metaphor extends to their menu options and even for their safety in the event of a cataclysmic event. NovaStar passengers will likely be unaware anything has happened due to the ability of their escape pods to maintain their comfort while it is recommended DwarfStar passengers say their final farewells before departing, just in case. Then the message ends with a cheery sign off. It’s a frustratingly hilarious and biting critique that is a great read.

– MAD

Read Welcome Aboard

Kraken Mare by Tim Major

The audio log formatting of this story really drew me into it, as it made me feel like I was hunkered over a radio, trying to make out what ended up (presumably) being the final words of the narrator. Somehow, Tim is able to create an audioscape in very few words. The interruptions to the intelligibility of the audio log both enable the pace and tension to remain high throughout and to draw Kraken Mare’s namesake in the reader’s mind without having to spend any words doing so. The roars, the partial artefacting, and the narrator’s confusion over the weather are all so evocative that I felt myself reaching for audio tuning dials to clear static while reading.

In addition to the soundscape, Tim also paints a devastating ending as the narrator learns first-hand that Kraken Mare, and more specifically the Throat of the Kraken, is more than just a name. The actual narrative in this piece is a short one, but even through the brief time we are with the narrator, there is a sense of who this character is. This makes the final paragraph, in which the narrator’s request that someone tell their family, their friend, their someone that they love them is cut off, so crushing. Like the narrator, we assume that landing in Kraken Mare instead of Ligeia is the end for our unfortunate narrator. 

– MAD

Read Kraken Mare

Chosen by Chrissie Rohrman

In some stories, authors throw in a surprise twist that no one sees coming (cue the reddit threads with people saying they knew it from the first chapter if not the first page). With Chrissie’s story, you know that there’s going to be a twist. That knowledge, however, doesn’t diminish the enjoyment at all. In fact, it heightens it, because you are waiting, wondering what is going to happen and how it will flip the story on its head. You know the twist is coming because Sirene can’t win, or at least, we don’t want her to. We see this powerful witch–one who has admitted to animal slaughter and her plan to murder a young woman–attempting to take advantage of this poor girl, so we’re waiting to see if 1) Sirene will have a change of heart (which seems unlikely based on the opening paragraph) or 2) Lira will come out on top. It ends up being the second option in what can only be described as an intervention of destiny, and it works so well because even if the reader expected something to happen, Sirene is so confident throughout that her surprise at her own demise is doubly satisfying.

The story also gets at the idea that even if you follow the instructions to a tee, things may still not work out. It is possible that before embarking on her quest for immortality that Sirene was a good person, but the opening lets us know that she has “corrupted [her] own soul beyond recognition” as she’s committed horrible acts. She has done all that has been prescribed by the Ritual of Otune, then Lira, who has done none of it, reaps the rewards. Sometimes things work out for good people. Sometimes, as hard as we try, things just don’t seem to go our way. So let’s think about Sirene the next time we’re told to slaughter a few young animals as part of a recipe for immortality. 

– MAD

Read Chosen

Machine Learning by Holly Schofield

Finding the right narrative voice for a piece can be incredibly difficult. I’m sure we’ve all read or written stories where the idea was great, but the perspective or the narrator just didn’t quite fit. Sometimes, the best narrator matches the tone exactly. Other times, like with Holly’s story, it’s the conflict between the tone and the plot that makes a story sing. In ELRY-423, we have a child-like narrator I once characterized to Thomas as a Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls. ELRY-423 often interrupts the prose with sounds of adulation and joy as ELRY-423 experiences tingles while planting. The plot, however, culminates with ELRY-423 deciding the way to save the forest and get more tingles is to “[break] off the pink half-shell antennas that those particular humans had on the sides of their heads” and/or “put seedlings into those humans’ various openings and access panels.” In essence, to kill all humans (or at least the company bosses. Then their successors. Then their successors…).

This piece is also a great example of a standalone flash piece that hints to a future but doesn’t demand it. A lot of the stories we receive and ultimately reject feel like chapters of a larger story. Holly’s story definitely points to a future story–one where ELRY-423 unites the three hundred tree-planting drones to kill humans–but that aspect isn’t necessary to make this piece feel like a complete story. Within its 650 words, we meet the character, are introduced to a world and conflict, and see a complete arc: ELRY-423 starts like any drone but by the end, ELRY-423 is ready to start a revolution against the company. While future stories with ELRY-423 are possible, there is a sense of completeness at the end of this one that makes it a great example of flash-with-future-promise rather than a scene from a larger piece.

– MAD

Read Machine Learning

It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar by L.L. Lamando

Voice—It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar has it nailed, but what do I mean by that? For me, it means that without a word of physical description or action, the author has used diction, idiom, speech patterns, humor, and a variety of other tools to paint the perfect picture of the speaker. He didn’t even need two-way dialogue; one side of the conversation is enough for the reader to get an idea of exactly who’s speaking.

Now yes, because of Marvel, Loki is a household name in popular culture these days, but even before the name-drop, the reader has already formed a picture of someone charming and forward, a salesman with a winsome smile and a never-take-no attitude. In my head it’s all too easy to see him standing there in that locker room, probably in nothing but a towel (having come straight from the sauna), one foot up on the bench as he’s making his pitch. And doesn’t Loki slot perfectly into that characterization? That’s the power of a strong voice.

-TJG

Read It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar

Brick by Jude-Marie Green

There’s so much that works well about Brick–the narration’s sense of dramatic irony, the try-fail cycles which the main character goes through while building up to his final triumph–but what really drew me to this piece was its theme. 

Theme is a tricky thing to pull off. When done well, it can evoke and enlighten, but there’s a delicate balance between poignant and preachy. Often, authors lean too overtly on the “point” of the story, and the reader comes away feeling like they’ve been lectured to. 

Instead, Brick lets the plot illustrate its theme in a beautiful and subtle way. It should be apparent that our main character, Brick, has special needs, whether it be autism or something else. “There’s something missing from you, son,” Brick’s mom says to him, but despite this, Brick’s autism isn’t presented as a handicap; rather, his uniqueness is what makes him great. Long before Brick builds the device which allows him to fly like a superhero, he displays superhuman intelligence through a variety of experiments, and that’s cool to see.

Fun fact: The current World’s Strongest Man, Tom Stoltman of Scotland, has autism. Those who learn and think differently aren’t necessarily disadvantaged; they can do great things, just like Brick.

-TJG

Read Brick

Welcome to our Editorial Page! As part of the yearly subscription package, Thomas J. Griffin and M.A. Dosser (the co-Editors-in-Chief) have written short commentaries on each and every story published by Flash Point SF. These editorials include examinations of craft from the perspective of the editors—how various elements of the storytelling worked for them on a technical level—as well as general impressions of each piece.

Ready to find out what makes each of these stories stand out? Click any of the titles below to reveal the contents.

2022

The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor by Alexandra Grunberg

Everyone loves a good paradox. Much like an optical illusion fascinates the eye, readers love to try to wrap their brain around something which fundamentally resists understanding. The “infinite” apartment complex in The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor is just that, but this story isn’t just a thought experiment. No, in order to take a story from merely intriguing to compelling and satisfying, the reader needs more. They need conflict.

And so, the elevators go out. This would be an inconvenience for anyone in any multi-level apartment complex, but when you’re nearly 1000 floors up? The intrigue inherent in the premise melds with the plot turn to create the perfect tale of woman vs. environment, and the sense of futility derived from our main character’s attempt to reach the bottom only heightens the tension. Then, right at the end, we’re given a glimmer of hope—are those street lamps? Is she finally approaching the bottom?

Alas, in keeping with the promise of the premise, there is no bottom, as there is no top. Those are only stars below.

-TJG

Read The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor 

We’ll Keep It on File by Jordan Chase-Young

Anyone who’s ever told a joke (which is to say, everyone ever) knows that it’s much harder to get a laugh than you think. What seems hilarious in your head often loses its clarity somewhere between brain and mouth, and then you’re standing there with your hands in your pockets and a silly, unreciprocated grin on your face, feeling foolish. 

This goes doubly for writing humor. Crafting a good set-up and delivering the punchline at just the right moment are learned skills. So is writing good situational humor, and that’s just what We’ll Keep It on File has done. It’s all about expectations, you see. The story unfolds as a scenario all too familiar to most—a job interview. There’s plenty of tension inherent there, and for good reason. The stakes are high and no one likes being judged, and this time it’s all of humanity, with all our many, many shortcomings, being evaluated. The risk of falling short of the interviewer’s expectations is apparent, and the author does a great job building that tension further through the interviewer’s pointed questions and disapproving tone. But then the “punchline” hits us—humanity is OVER-qualified. We’ve still been denied entry to the Galactic Federation, but not for being a mess of a species; no, we’re actually too mature and committed to progress, and that would make the other member species feel inadequate. Such a ridiculous logic is nothing if not funny because of how well it subverts our expectations.

-TJG

Read We’ll Keep It on File

And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe by Birgit K. Gaiser

There are many things I look for as an editor when evaluating a submission, but one of the most crucial, which often moves stories with a promising start into the DECLINE category, is a lack of effective tension building. Your story can have sparkling prose, a sympathetic main character, unique and fascinating worldbuilding, but if it can’t push me to the edge of my seat, if it can’t compel me to read the next line and the next with a growing sense of dread or anticipation in my gut, then it may not have what it takes. 

This doesn’t automatically mean big action set pieces or stunning revelations, however. Effective tension can be quiet. It can grow slowly as a vague, uneasy feeling, or quickly as an unstoppable sense of doom. It can even be a single, lingering doubt—can the protagonist pull this off? The tension employed in And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe is a more subtle variation, but it’s built perfectly for the purposes of this particular plot. Our narrator is set up as a voyeur, observing but not interacting, and their observations are vaguely predatory, just enough to set off alarm bells in the reader’s head. Then we learn of the curse, and the revelation of what may happen only heightens the sense of tension, because the danger is dismissed, despite what we the readers know must be true. And yet there’s nothing we can do about it—the show must go on. Every chance given to the character in danger builds our fear and frustration more. By the time the ritual occurs and the curse is fulfilled, we’re filled with a sense of tragic fate, and the tension is released. It’s not a happy ending, but that was never promised in the first place; only a thrilling ride. 

-TJG

Read And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe

Pen-pals by Alexander Hewitt

Tropes get a bad rap. So often we hear them spoken as a dirty word. They are regarded as something to avoid, on the grounds that they are “unoriginal” or trite, or otherwise low-hanging fruit for the lazy plotter. 

This can all be true, I suppose, if the author goes about their use of tropes in a lazy way, but what many fail to mention in their critiques is this: tropes are tropes for a reason. They involve situations and characterizations that are immediately recognizable and often universal, and since good writing is all about making a relatable connection with the reader, a good trope, used well, can be an invaluable tool. 

Pen-pals has done just that by taking a classic horror trope (a ghost writing threatening messages on the mirror in blood) and thoughtfully pairing it with a narrative tone that undercuts our expectations of horror, replacing it with humor and irony. If the author had played the trope straight, we as readers may well have lost interest because we knew, or at least could make an informed guess, where the story was headed. But by “inverting” the trope, they’ve signaled that this story will not be what we expect, and there’s no better way to spark the reader’s curiosity than by surprising them. 

-TJG

Read Pen-pals

Mixed Signals by Aeryn Rudel

Post-apocalyptic stories are so often bleak, filled with speculative horrors of what humanity will devolve into when our continued existence is all we have left to lose. “Mixed Signals” begins by showing Sam and Colton trying to get supplies from an unnamed woman, and, from the get go, Aeryn already paints hope into this bleak world. While the ominous threat of Cappers exists, this unnamed woman is willing to brave their dangers to supply the resistance. And our two protagonists have found more than comradery as they’ve traveled and worked together in the resistance–they have found love. 

What stuck out to me the most in this story is the decision Sam and Colton make at the end. They exist in a world where supplies are limited and they have been relying on the kindness of a woman who has never even told them her name in order to survive. Yet, upon seeing an infant, there is no debate. They will take this child with them, they will keep her safe and provided for like her mother kept them, and, when she’s old enough to ask, they will tell her about her mother. The decision alone displays the goodness of both of these characters, but the fact that neither of them ever suggest an alternative is what really gets to the ethos of hope and possibility that suffuses “Mixed Signals.” 

– MAD

Read Mixed Signals

The Queen by Teresa Milbrodt

If you’ve seen ScreenRant’s “Pitch Meeting” series, you may know that a common trend in cinema is that villains are so often evil for evil’s sake. They lack motivation and seemingly only exist so the protagonist can have someone to foil. This isn’t always the case, of course. Some of the best villains, regardless of the media, are those that, when they’re given their moment, are nearly able to persuade the hero (and even the audience) to their point of view. The protagonist then has to question what they thought was true and decide how they plan to move forward. Sometimes I’m extremely frustrated with the protagonist for the path they chose; other times I’m jubilant and feel a deep satisfaction.

In “The Queen,” Teresa flips the typical script by crafting a great villain who is also our protagonist. Rather than having the story follow the person from the village who confronts the eponymous queen, the reader is with the queen the entire time. We hear her reasoning (she has to preserve the health and safety of the fairies and elves under her protection) and how she appealed to the villagers many times (even providing them with an alternative). We know the queen, even with her justifications, has done terrible things and murdered nearly the entire population of *at least* one village. We even hear her be fairly blasé about it. But when the potential hero’s swordpoint is at the queen’s breast and her only reaction is to proffer the villager a cup of tea, you can’t help but think: what would I do? And that moment, not one of frustration or satisication for what the villager chooses, but an immediate interpellation of the reader, makes “The Queen” all the more satisfying to read again and again. Particularly as your answer may change from day to day, moment to moment.

– MAD

Read The Queen

Time Accounted For by James Harris

At the end of 2021, I was reading a lot of Ted Chiang. This story grabbed me as being a piece with the deterministic themes in Chiang’s works involving time, particularly “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” We have published a number of stories that involve time travel at Flash Point SF, but this was the first where rather than the time travel being used to change an event, it was the cause. The narrator could not prevent Max’s injury through time traveling because the narrator’s attempt was the reason the injury happened to begin with. This kind of determinism elides the paradox inherent in so many time travel stories, where a person travels back to the past to change something, which will then change the future to the point that the person will never have a reason to travel back in the first place (for a great example of this, see the Futurama episode “Decision 3012.”) This isn’t the case in “Time Accounted For.” Instead, the true tragedy is the knowledge that the younger version of the narrator will work for years to prevent something that he will inevitably cause. 

– MAD

Read Time Accounted For

The Daily Communion by Patrick Hurley

Everyone’s heard the writing maxim “show, don’t tell,” but like all advice, what works well for someone, or some project, might not be as helpful for others. Case in point: The Daily Communion. With this story the opposite is true. 

There are two basic ways to narrate fiction: by summarizing action, or by dramatizing it. These distinctions are fairly self-explanatory, but it’s worth noting that dramatic narration is usually what people point to when they think of compelling prose, because it’s where the story feels most immediate, where the characters act in real time, where they converse and move and think and feel. 

The Daily Communion, by contrast, is written mostly in summary. You could argue that the narration isn’t even describing “actual” events (I mean, no work of fiction is, but that’s beside the point); instead, the story amounts to one big, hypothetical “for instance” of how the acolytes of Viaremora typically behave. There is no “drama.” And yet it works. But why?

For me, it comes down to a few things. First and foremost, it never hurts to be funny, and this story is hilarious, if in an understated fashion. Second, and if I said it once I’ve said it a million times, make your story relatable. Here, The Daily Communion picks the lowest of the hanging fruit–who among us doesn’t have visceral, perhaps rageful, memories of being stuck in crawling, senseless traffic? I can put myself there in an instant, can’t you? And third, and we’re gonna tie it all together here… sometimes people just love a good explanation. “Show don’t tell” is fine, and drama can be fun, but give me a good conspiracy theory, even a ridiculous one, and I’m hooked. You’re telling me there’s a reason for all the senseless traffic we wade through every morning? That it’s not just the banality of life, or random events of entropy unfolding in the most annoying way possible, but a deliberate act of emotional sabotage designed to feed a wanton god? There’s a reason conspiracy theories like the Illuminati, lizard people, ancient aliens, and so much more persist despite all evidence to the contrary, and it’s because making the mundane and relatable into something spectacular and compelling is one of the best ways there is for catching a reader’s attention. 

-TJG

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Storm Wolves by Nathan Slemp

So much of Sci-fi and Fantasy is looking forward. How would this or that technology change the world? How would this event or that person or this encounter affect our future? Forecasting what’s to come has always been a celebrated part of the genre, but every once in a while, it can be just as fun to look back instead.

Secret Histories do just that, but in order to craft a believable narrative in this subgenre, you have to be willing and able to write in the margins of the textbook, in between the lines of the established “truth.” And to do this, Secret Histories must feel plausible. Could a special forces unit of werewolves have really wreaked havoc behind enemy lines in World War II? Maybe, but their impact would have to be slight, their mission covert, or else we’d have heard about them, right? The author of Storm Wolves understands this perfectly. If the Storm Wolves were out there winning the war single-handedly, storming the beaches, halting the German advance, killing Hitler in a theater full of Nazi brass (I’m looking at you, Tarantino), then the story loses its plausibility, and becomes something else altogether–Alternate History. Alternate Histories are fun too, but they’re a different thing, and like most sci-fi they are more forward-looking; they still ask how a certain thing might change the future, they’re simply looking at the future from some point in the past. 

If you’re wanting to write your own Secret History, don’t ask “how does this change the future?” Instead ask, “what have the stories of the past left unsaid?” It’s the intrigue implicit in this question which drives a good Secret History.

-TJG

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One More Sunrise by S.J.C. Schreiber

A relatable theme is often what takes a story from good to great, but finding that something that resonates with the reader is easier said than done. It’s not as simple as identifying a universal truism (tis better to have loved and lost, yada yada) and then typing out the right keywords; you have to make the reader believe that the struggle is real. Readers can smell disingenuous sentiment from a mile away, so in order for a theme to become relatable, several elements have to align. It’s not enough to simply present your character with an obstacle. Their motivation for overcoming it must be sincere and grounded in their characterization. They must grapple earnestly with that obstacle, and whether or not they succeed, the stakes and the cost should be apparent. What did they give up in order to succeed? What did they lose through failure? Can we see the weight of those compromises in the actions and thoughts of the character moving forward?

One More Sunrise takes on a theme that I think many of us are all too familiar with these days. I like to think of themes as questions the story asks both the character and the reader, and for me the question here is, “What’s to be done in the face of despair?” As in real life, the world of the story faces a pandemic, though this version is much more severe, and it’s left our character stranded on the moon with no way home and no hope of rescue. It’s a nightmarish situation, and one that an empathetic reader will be immediately gripped by. “What would I do in that situation?” is always a question you want your reader to ask, because it means you’ve hooked them, but (importantly, I think) the character doesn’t answer that question in the way we expect. We can see the narrator grappling with the despair, but their answer to the central thematic question isn’t to capitulate; rather, they reach for silver linings, displaying resilience and mental fortitude in the face of overwhelming circumstance. It’s an important message, deftly crafted into the plot in such a way that the reader has, hopefully, learned something about themselves through their own interaction with the story. 

-TJG

Read One More Sunrise

2021

Spring or Winter’s Respite by Cameron Hunter

2021 was a difficult year for many people. 2020 was too. And it looks like 2022 will be as well. With all the difficulties and uncertainty in the world, this story really stood out for the moments of hope amidst the misery. This is a post-apocalyptic world in the vein of Children of Men. Not to that extent yet–as the lab is set to deliver its third child of the day–but it does seem to be moving in that direction. And Cameron makes the wise choice to not really explain why certain things have happened. There are brief gestures to the lowering sperm count in men and mentions that women do not want to risk pregnancy “for a multitude of reasons,” but it doesn’t go much beyond that. We know that the world has become a place that most people do not want to bring children into, even when there is the ability to do so through Dylan’s business. And that’s all we really need to know. The reader fills in the rest as we are given a tight, focused look at Dylan, preparing to ship/fly a child to her waiting parent(s).

It is Dylan’s interaction with the baby and the final moments of the story that made us decide this would be a perfect story for the end of 2021. Dylan’s business is failing and he’s lost some of the moments he most looked forward to, where he could see a nearly unprecedented view of the world from the mechanized stork’s camera. Yet, when he sees this infant, he is compelled to interact with her until she smiles, to bring joy to her, to himself, and to the reader who has just been confronted with the realities of this future. Then Cameron offers hope. We’re told many people don’t want to bring children into the world as it currently is, but this child will be able to have “her own opinions, her own opportunities to change things, her own future and squandered or realized potential.” And she’ll have her parent(s), for whom the delivery of this baby, Cameron spells out, could be the delivery of hope and meaning. As the baby coos in wonder as the stork carries her away, I couldn’t help but feel warm and think that there may be a deliverance of hope. At least eventually. That hope could be a child, a new job, a treatment, a message of love and caring from one close to us, or whatever the mechanized stork may carry.

– MAD

Read Spring or Winter’s Respite

A Little Good Magic by Jamie Lackey

The epistolary form can be hard to pull off. When presented through the guise of a letter or journal, the necessities of exposition and plot can feel unnatural if they aren’t handled with care and a soft touch. Would someone writing an entry in their personal diary really go to the trouble of explaining setting and character backstories, or would they just write, “Jan was mean to me again today,” foregoing superfluous details?

A Little Good Magic navigates this medium perfectly, though it does help that the main character, Lisa, is writing to Santa (who can see you when you’re sleeping, don’t forget). This allows her to touch lightly upon her ever-changing circumstances without weighing the prose down with repeated exposition. It requires a lot of faith in the reader, who is mostly left to put two and two together by themselves, but it keeps the story concise and immediate.  

-TJG

Read A Little Good Magic

You Are Not a Player Character by Greta Hayer

What makes You Are Not a Player Character such an enjoyable read is how relatable it is, though I do wonder if that relatability will be felt universally. This feels like a distinctly Millennial story to me, as I was immediately caught up by memories of playing RPG video games like Skyrim, The Witcher, Runescape, and more. It’s a strange thing to observe the NPCs (non-player characters) of games such as those. Their routines revolve like clockwork, and as your hero galivants around the map, it becomes all too easy to use and abuse those NPCs to your benefit. The morality of your actions never come into play because the point is moot; no one lives behind the blank stares, the scripted responses. They’re bits of code which only exist to serve you, to facilitate the completion of whatever quest you happen to be on.

But what if someone did live within that code? In asking that question, You Are Not a Player Character instantly becomes a haunting exploration into the nature of free will and consequence. What kinds of things would we allow ourselves to do, if we truly thought no one was watching? It’s an idea that almost feels too big for a single flash piece, but the author plays it perfectly, asking the question, then letting us decide how to feel and what to think.

-TJG

Read You Are Not a Player Character

Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit by Candace Cunard

Make the strange familiar(!!!)

I feel like I write a lot about the importance of making your story relatable, but that’s because it is important. Crafting a relatable idea, circumstance, or character is the quickest and surest way to engage with your reader, and Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit does just that in a really fun way. Everyone knows what it’s like to read hysterical Amazon reviews or irate YouTube comments, but by taking something strange and fantastical—a demon summoning circle—and making light of it in this familiar context, the story marries the interesting with the mundane and makes it relatable. Just the idea of customer reviews for a demon summoning circle is patently ridiculous, and it’s that juxtaposition that gives the story its humor.

-TJG

Read Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit

A Voice in the Winter by Shawn Kobb

I’m not being trite when I say this story is magical in the best way. For any story utilizing magic, we ask the readers to believe in something unbelievable, and to that end, it helps if we give our magic rules. A thing defined is a thing understood. Good stories then give depth to the magic as the plot progresses by showing how it’s applied firsthand within the boundaries we’ve set. 

Great stories take their magic one step further, not by breaking the rules, but by bending them, giving them nuance, showing how unexpected things can still happen within these boundaries, and that’s exactly what A Voice in the Winter has done. Through its magic it creates an engaging world with a unique dilemma, then hits us with a surprising, but absolutely fitting, twist to create that satisfying ending.

-TJG

Read A Voice in the Winter

I Don’t Burn Like You by Katherine Sankey

Writing flash fiction that stands on its own is difficult, and the fewer words you use, the harder it is to tell a complete story. It raises the difficulty even more when you attempt to subvert expectations within flash, yet Katherine was able to tell a complete story with a surprise punch at the end in a Drabble-length piece. The setting is one familiar to most readers, evoking witch-hunts and, for this US American, the Salem Witch Trials. Rather than a fantasy, however, this is science fiction. As always, these men accusing a woman of witchcraft are wrong. This time, though, the men are the ones to suffer, as the woman they are burning has a metallic form under her simulacra of flesh. And when the coating burns off, noxious gas is released that kills the men and leaves our narrator unharmed.

The reason the ending is such a surprise comes from our genre expectations. The narrator describes the ordeal as interesting, which is not a word most in this situation would use. Then the men’s pricks draw no blood, which is another sign that something isn’t right. The narrator even warns them that she doesn’t burn like they do–separating herself from them. But the reveal that the narrator is metallic rather than magical plays on the audience’s expectations. It is a “twist” that is perfectly telegraphed and, upon reread, is clear as day. The brevity of the piece only makes the ending’s punch hit harder.

– MAD

Read I Don’t Burn Like You

The Unchecked Box by Douglas DiCicco

While I am not a galactic emperor, I connected to Gorgalax’s plight in many ways. My second year as a PhD student, I was teaching at three colleges, taking four graduate seminars a semester, trying to publish articles, and working on my comprehensive exams. Plus editing Flash Point SF, getting married, and overindulging in junk food. It felt like there was so much going on and I was constantly working. Then, seemingly at once, I finished my coursework, I started only teaching for two schools, I passed my comps and had my prospectus approved, my articles drafts were submitted or published, Flash Point closed submissions, and I got married. I had time on my hands. And I had no idea what to do with myself. I, like Gorgalax, was consumed by boredom and found myself feeling increasingly depressed. After working so hard for so long to achieve a goal, I felt like I lacked a purpose. I felt adrift, like I was wasting time when I could have been doing other things (Note to readers: Relaxation is important. Don’t be like me.)

Unlike the sad paragraph I just wrote, Douglas’s story is very funny. Chris, Thomas, and I all noted how we laughed out loud following Gorgalax’s attempt at a knitting circle. But I include that description because there’s something extremely relatable in Gorgalax’s story. Even this ultra-powerful space emperor could feel adrift and struggle when the only thing they have left to accomplish is to relax and be finished with their task. Gorgalax jumps at the first chance he gets to return to the work he feels he’s best at after many failed attempts at hobbies. Hopefully others can find something that makes us happy and gives us purpose, or even accept that when a task is finished, we should take time to celebrate and bask in that moment. We check that last box, then we start a new list, just as I imagine Gorgalax will do as he takes down the newest rebellion.

– MAD

Read The Unchecked Box

The Memorial by Jon Hansen

If you asked me to define satire, I would probably struggle. It’s not humor, precisely, though good satire often uses humor effectively. And yet, it also doesn’t have to be serious–in fact, sometimes the more ridiculous the scenario, the better the message is conveyed. It’s not a sermon either; all satire functions to make a point, but with good satire the point is felt, not heard. No grand soliloquies with a character bluntly stating, “this is an example of a bad thing, and here is why it’s bad.” Instead, it’s demonstrated through the events of the scene, and the honest reactions of the characters to an untenable condition. Good satire presents us with a problem, then makes us stand face-to-face with those most affected. We can’t help but empathize, and through that empathy we learn a lesson. 

Again, satire is hard to define. In the end, it’s like porn–I know it when I see it. 

The idea of tearing down statues, and of questioning their legitimacy as pieces of enduring history, has been the subject of heated debate in America for a while now, but The Memorial tackles it with real cleverness. Through the statue of Baaolruith the First, we’re suddenly forced to wonder what other controversial statues might say if they could talk, and whether they’re really representing objective history, or simply the point of view of the individual they depict. Furthermore, how might that point of view run in contrast to the values we seek to uphold? It’s a question worthy of deep consideration, and we’re all the more willing to consider it because at no point do we feel talked down to, lectured or scolded. That’s the magic of satire. 

-TJG

Read The Memorial 

Ward F by William Kortbein

How much does a good premise matter when writing a story? Jim Butcher would argue not at all. Famously, the DRESDEN FILES author bet a fan that ideas didn’t matter, execution did, and to prove it he asked the fan for two lame ideas which he would then turn into a workable story. The fan suggested “Pokemon” and “The Lost Roman legion.” Jim took those prompts and ended up writing a best-selling, six-novel fantasy series called THE CODEX ALERA. 

…That said, a strong premise never hurts, and in Ward F we find an incredible sci-fi concept fulfilled by strong writing. The best SF stories, for me, are those that make me think as well as feel, and Ward F does that in spades. From the moment you become aware of the conflict’s true nature, the entire story becomes new. It’s the kind of twist that compels you to go back and read from the beginning, challenging you to apply what you’ve learned to the words. It’s brain-bending fun in the best way. 

-TJG

Read Ward F

One Last Trip by Teresa Pham-Carsillo

Time travel is a classic speculative fiction technology, being featured in works that pre-date Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. With the idea being so prominent in SF writing, there are a lot of opinions about what make a “good” or a “bad” time travel story. To me, Teresa’s story is excellent in how it ties the idea of time travel to confronting grief. When I was reading it, the bit where the narrator says that meeting a past version of yourself can lead to an “accidental annihilation of the current self, a self-immolation like the lit end of a cigarette pressed to the exact place you inhabited in the fabric of space and time” then follows that with “But this was my very reason for returning” really grabbed me. This story really feels like it’s about finding a way to deal with grief. Or perhaps a more accurate but crasser way of phrasing this: to use grief. In this story, grief led the narrator to build a time machine, meticulously test it, then use it to correct a wrong for which she blamed herself. 

The ending line of this story–that the narrator let go–raises questions as to what she’s letting go of. Is it her life (the clearest option) or is it her grief and guilt now that, through her own destruction, has been rectified in a new timeline? The scenes at the bar feel so lived in and true (at least from my own experience of crying over broken hearts to my friends and sister) and the wreck so devastating, that you can really understand the narrator’s grief-fuelled construction of her own demise. Yet, despite this doom and gloom assessment so far, the story doesn’t end merely with our narrator fading out of existence. It ends with a memory. A memory of a rabbit, one suffused with warmth and life, experiencing a new timeline. This memory provides a ray of hope that our narrator’s efforts are worth it. That her grief led to creating something great.

– MAD

Read One Last Trip 

By Any Other by Kristin Osani

There’s almost something alchemical to a good title. I’ve read dozens upon dozens of books, articles, and blog posts about the craft of fiction writing, but never once have I seen anyone try their hand at a “How To” for good story titles. The best seem to act as a sort of refrain for the piece they represent, highlighting some theme or event within the larger text in such a way that the title itself feels richer and more meaningful the further into the story one goes.

But how to come up with such a title? Beats me.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that titles stand out to me all the more as stories get shorter. With so few words to tell the tale, every single one counts, title included. It’s not just a name–it’s in conversation with the piece, lending context, framing. By Any Other is the perfect example of this, the story’s theme distilled down to three words. It’s not even a complete sentence(!), but it’s such a recognizable phrase that we all know how to finish the thought for the author, especially after we’ve read the story and understand its why

-TJG

Read By Any Other

The Set-Up by David Far

“Surprising yet inevitable.” Maybe you’ve heard this phrase thrown around before in narrative circles, but in case you haven’t, it’s nothing more than an attempt to sum up what makes a good twist ending. The “surprising” should be self-evident—it’s not a twist if it doesn’t surprise—but the important bit, for my money, is that “yet inevitable” on the back end. Good twists are so hard to pull off because they’re a verbal slight of hand. Show your hand too much, and your twist becomes predictable, but you need to show something, or you run the risk of making your reader feel confused or worse, foolish. Once the initial shock of the twist has worn off, there should always be moments in the text that the reader can call back to and say, “Ah, the clue was right here the whole time! I should have known!”

The Set-Up is a masterclass in twist endings. All the hints are right there in the text, but the narration doesn’t call them out; instead, it uses them as supporting evidence for an equally probable (and more preferable) alternative scenario, which will only unravel at the appointed hour, when the revelation of truth will be at its most devastating. 

You should always count on the narrator to give you the facts—just don’t expect the narrator to tell you the truth about them. They don’t call them “unreliable” for nothing. 

-TJG

Read The Set-Up

Heaven Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be by Karl El-Koura

This story is a study in dramatic irony. As the reader, we recognize fairly early on that the narrator isn’t in Heaven at all, but the other place, and it’s that awareness that lends the piece its humor. This dramatic irony is executed well throughout, but there’s one paragraph in particular, I think, around which the story’s humor turns.

“Second, there’s the heat…” 

If you didn’t pick up on the joke right from the start, this paragraph is a dead giveaway. Hell is hot, Heaven’s not, but even though it rather obviously lets the reader in on the joke, it still works for a couple reasons. First, it’s an implied twist rather than an overt one. The reader is now aware of the irony of the narrator’s words, while the narrator remains oblivious. Second, it comes early enough that the reader is now in on the joke for most of the story, making the reading experience that much more enjoyable. Twists don’t have to come at the end. That’s where we usually find them, and when done right they serve to shine new light back upon what we’ve just read, but in this case it actually works better coming earlier. The author isn’t trying to blow anyone’s mind; he wants to give you a reason to keep reading what would otherwise be a pretty scathing Yelp review of Heaven. 

-TJG

I openly admit that I didn’t pick up on the twist as early as Thomas did. For me, the “Second, there’s the heat” paragraph (and really that sentence) was when the lightbulb went off. Up until then, my main thought was “If we accept this, my mother will be furious with me.” Even before my realization, however, I was impressed with the witty prose and drawn into the piece. Afterwards, I found the dramatic irony both funny and exceptionally well executed. It pulls directly from the reader’s expectations and builds to the point where Karl switches from winking at the reader to nudging them in the ribs with “Hell, I’d settle for a middle-management type…”

I agree with Thomas that one of the strongest aspects of Karl’s story is that the twist comes early enough that rather than shining a new light on the story you’ve just read, you get to enjoy the bulk of the piece aware of the twist while the narrator is oblivious. I, personally, felt quite intelligent and doffed my tweed jacket and elbow patches upon figuring it out at the start of the third paragraph, seeing there was over half of the story to go. It doesn’t hurt that the story is funny regardless of if you catch on from the get go or you don’t realize until the narrator admits that they didn’t not give into their baser instincts while still alive.

-MAD

Read Heaven Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be

Amanita by Dawn Vogel

With Amanita, it’s all about the sensory details. The idea of a psychedelic, pseudo-magical mushroom trip isn’t enough; the author combines sight, touch, taste, and smell in concrete ways that draw the reader in and make the experience feel real and concrete in our minds. 

This story also does well to cultivate a sense of danger. “There was a fine line between poisoned to death and poisoned to dream” is such a strong sentence because it serves multiple ends, letting us know what the mushrooms are for, as well as alerting us to their risks. This gives the story a baseline tension that Amanita maintains throughout as she works against the clock to draw her charges out of their dreams before she herself succumbs to the mushrooms’ poison.

-TJG 

Read Amanita

Giving Up the Ghost by Aeryn Rudel

I’ve written elsewhere about how time travel is a classic speculative fiction device, one that we have seen often in film, television, novels, etc. This story, however, really surprised me in the best way possible. One reason was the stipulation of the time travel: you get three hours. One implication of this is that after the job is done, you still have time in whatever timeline you are in before you come back to the present to see if everything has changed. And that period of time after was the most surprising aspect of this story. When I first read this, I assumed the job our narrator was sent to do would take up most of the narrative. The expectation is set as an older agent travels twenty-nine years into the past along with a silenced .22 pistol that this will be an action-packed thriller in the vein of Looper. But it ends up being so much more than that. 

The scenes with the narrator and her father drip with emotion, and it is clear even before the narrator says it explicitly that she lost her father sometime between 1992 and 2021. The reunion is heart wrenching for the narrator and for the reader. It’s also something I feel many stories would relegate to a brief interlude between action. This piece reminds me of how Vince Gilligan said Breaking Bad was about the moments in between, where we see characters taking care of the things that most films and series skip over. This story is largely about the moment in between the assassination and the return to the future. It’s about a daughter getting to connect with her deceased father and telling him one last time that she loves him. And it’s all the better for focusing on the emotion over the action.

– MAD

Read Giving Up the Ghost

Never-ending Dawn by MM Schreier

Frame tales are tricky. Too often the frame itself feels like a gimmick, a means to an end. The author wants to tell a story a certain way, but they can’t find a natural opening, or they want to ease the reader into the action, introduce the characters and give the real story context so we fully appreciate what’s going on when we finally get to the good stuff. And thus, a frame is born.

What makes Never-ending Dawn so clever is that the tale-within-the-tale does this in return for the frame, giving it depth and stakes we didn’t realize were present at the story’s beginning. This is how a good frame tale works, by making the frame count for more than just set up. In fact, the frame is where the heart of this story actually resides, in Ella’s present, where she still carries with her the consequences of her past choices, as well as the weight of more hard choices to come. 

-TJG

Read Never-ending Dawn

Alien Taxidermy and Love Have Four Things in Common by Addison Smith

There are two things I think whenever I read this story. The first is that I can’t help but hear it narrated in Sam Elliott’s deep drawl, which is probably pretty idiosyncratic to me and not at all what Addison intended. But maybe! The second is that I’m amazed with how Addison weaves together the description of the taxidermy process and the narrator’s lost love, especially in the second half where the two feel inseparable. The taxidermy portions provide such detailed description of this space chicken that even without knowledge of what goes into taxidermy, it feels real. And the love that’s expressed throughout is both tragic and visceral. You can feel the pain and the warmth through the prose. When the narrator describes the fear that held them back–a single-sentence paragraph in the middle of longer, more clinical descriptions–it feels like the love, the pain, and the regret is bursting out, unable to be contained. Elsewhere, the passages on love fit seamlessly into the end of taxidermy-focused paragraphs, indicating how the narrator’s love for this person infuses everything they do.

I particularly enjoy how the ending functions in the narrative. It both explains what we have read before, giving the reader a greater appreciation and understanding of the story on a reread, and completes the arc of the narrator. The narrator has expressed fear, regret and longing, but the end is where the narrator takes a stand and makes a definitive statement. It’s no longer that the narrator imagines catching their love as they fall from the sky or reflecting on how they should have done more. Instead, it ends with a promise of growth, reuniting, and, of course, of love.

– MAD

Read Alien Taxidermy and Love Have Four Things in Common

From Iron Freed by Laura Duerr

Often in submitted flash pieces, we see that authors choose between focusing on developing the narrative or the worldbuilding–either giving us a compelling story with interesting characters or a world that is fleshed out and immersive. It is rare that we get both, but Laura, in this story, provides an incredibly well-described world, with visuals that leap off the page, as well as a narrative that provides a beginning, middle, and end. From the gown Gwen wears as she assists the magician on stage, to Gwen’s race through Venice, to the depiction of the fae at the portal, every moment of the story is drawn with vivid prose that paints the backdrop to a story of women retaliating against and escaping a rapist.

In the notes on the illustration, Laura told Kevin that as the story was set in the 1880s-90s, the inspiration for the outfits could come from something like The Prestige. As The Prestige was/still is one of my favorite films, I immediately drew this connection while reading, which only heightened my enjoyment of it. But while Christopher Nolan uses science to fuel his fantasy in The Prestige, Laura fully embraces the magical elements, combining a magician of the period with fae folk. While real magic brings the fae into the world and real magic allows Gwen to escape it, the narrative is grounded through the realization and actions of Gwen, the only non-magical character in the narrative.

– MAD

Read From Iron Freed

The Glitter and the Grey by Matt McHugh

If you’ve come to the editorials looking for hints and tips about what we as editors want, I’ll start this with one: I have a major soft spot for stories that involve music. Thomas does too. Music is something that is often referred to as “universal” (I’m pretty sure there was a Harvard study in 2019 that gained attention in the popular press that called music a “universal language,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it back in the 1800s as well). Cultures from around the world have independently developed their own instruments, styles, and traditions involving music. Yet, much like the beauty pageant Miss Universe, this concept of “universal” is contained to our planet. Speculative Fiction, then, allows us to take this universal language and see it play out across the universe. Who would have thought there was Jazz (or I guess more accurately “Jizz”) on Tatooine? And music is central to stories by SF authors like Kingsley Amis and J.G. Ballard. 

With the universality of music, it makes sense that first contact could be handled well by those with great skill in this universal language, which is exactly what Matt does in this piece. As fourteen coiffed and gowned matronly musicians meet fourteen classic Roswell Greys, there is no strife. Both groups seek to learn about one another and share their own cultures. While many stories are coy with their themes, Matt has the theme spoken loudly and clearly by Lady Racine, and ends the story with the start of the chorus to the song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

– MAD

Read The Glitter and the Grey

Pink Marble by Zoe Kaplan

Opening lines can make or break a story. Fail to captivate a reader in those first few moments and they might quit on you before they ever get to “the good part.”

The author of Pink Marble understood the assignment. There’s nothing fancy or complicated about “The Queen had turned to stone,” but therein lies its power. The line is direct and concise, telling you exactly what’s happened (ostensibly), and yet there’s a compelling question inherent to the sentence: HOW did the Queen turn to stone? A good mystery, perhaps more than any other literary device, will keep readers turning the page.

This story’s style is also a winner. It calls to mind the opening passages of a classic fairy tale, and the narrative tone is laced with a subtle dramatic irony that can only be fully appreciated once the story is finished and the twist revealed. Pink Marble was one of our most popular stories for all of 2021 and it’s not hard to see why. 

-TJG

Read Pink Marble

DEPLOY by C.T. Dinh

Speculative fiction is an ideal cultural technology for imagining futures that could be. In this story, C.T. does a wonderful job succinctly painting a version of our future. Einstein was wrong (how about that). World War IV wasn’t fought with sticks and stones, because World War III never happened. Instead, it was more like a war of many worlds. This story does an excellent job of smuggling much larger worldbuilding ideas into a fairly contained story about one woman’s mental turmoil as she accomplished her work assignment. Of course, Pallas is about to collapse a star, so a bit of existential doubt would seem reasonable. But the way other characters react is notable. Xenozoologists have checked out the system nine lightyears away as if it’s a typical task, she has a manager who told her to relax and compares the collapse to dominos, and while her coworkers watch her intently, there is no pomp and circumstance. The storyworld C.T. crafts is one in which collapsing a star, while a big deal for Pallas as an individual, seems somewhat mundane. Even the ending conveys this, where Pallas completes the job, but all that happens is a display notice that the deployment was successful. No big bang, no celebration, just more waiting to see if anything actually happened. This future is fleshed out through details small and large and turns what we would consider grandiose into humdrum for these characters. 

Due to this take on the future, the most affecting part of the story is when Pallas imagines going home and seeing her sons. Similar to the end-of-day dinner conversations many of us have, when Pallas thinks about how she’ll respond to a question about how her day was, she’ll merely answer fine. Because that’s what it will be. Throughout the entire piece, C.T. creates a world that is so lived in that the typical wonder of speculative fiction is confined to the thoughts of one person, while the rest of the world (or even rest of the universe) continues as if collapsing a star just happens.

– MAD

Read DEPLOY

The Wreck of the Douceur Suprême by Karter Mycroft

This story grabbed me from the very beginning, and not just because it had a great opening line. Rather, Karter included a footnote on the title. A footnote in French. This combined with the opening line about it not being easy to sail on a box of Kleenex perfectly sets the tone for this story. But then the story surprises you with a deeply emotional core. The narrator and the rest of the crew choose their survival over their captain, resulting in a mutiny that may or may not have been necessary for their final arrival in the paradise that is the great desert of linens. The debated regret in the final paragraphs and the Moon’s potential wry smile in the epilogue provide a wonderfully emotional ending that somehow completely fits with the tone Karter establishes in the opening lines.

I feel I have to mention the art direction meeting for the story’s illustration as well. Another thing that I love about this piece is that Karter crafts an immersive world while also leaving a lot of the imagery completely up to the reader’s imagination. Our artist, Kevin, had a clear vision of what the sailors should look like–one that completely ran against what Chris, Thomas, and I thought. We debated how specific Kevin should get with the art, and we ended up deciding to focus on the ship rather than the sailors–letting the reader come to their conclusion of what these sailors with their lost shedhair pasta and soapscum snacks would look like. 

– MAD

Read The Wreck of the Douceur Suprême

Welcome Aboard by Simon Kewin

The humor in this was what immediately grabbed me and the class critique was what kept me invested for the long haul. The writing perfectly captures the tone of a pre-flight message, only instead of telling passengers to keep their trays in an upright position, the announcement lets them know that DwarfStar passengers should remain calm if they wake up and find themselves paralyzed. Then offers no further information.

This aspect of three tiers of passengers works in a delightfully dark comic critique. While NovaStar passengers are told they have access to gyms, bars, pools, and even theaters, the MainSequence passengers are told “room is inevitably limited on an interplanetary spaceship.” Then the DwarfStar passengers are told to get in orderly lines for their anesthesia. What is imposed as a restriction on one group of people is gleefully given to others. Yet in this construction of the narrative, the information is freely given and spelled out to all passengers, who presumably accept the divisions as part of the flight. This metaphor extends to their menu options and even for their safety in the event of a cataclysmic event. NovaStar passengers will likely be unaware anything has happened due to the ability of their escape pods to maintain their comfort while it is recommended DwarfStar passengers say their final farewells before departing, just in case. Then the message ends with a cheery sign off. It’s a frustratingly hilarious and biting critique that is a great read.

– MAD

Read Welcome Aboard

Kraken Mare by Tim Major

The audio log formatting of this story really drew me into it, as it made me feel like I was hunkered over a radio, trying to make out what ended up (presumably) being the final words of the narrator. Somehow, Tim is able to create an audioscape in very few words. The interruptions to the intelligibility of the audio log both enable the pace and tension to remain high throughout and to draw Kraken Mare’s namesake in the reader’s mind without having to spend any words doing so. The roars, the partial artefacting, and the narrator’s confusion over the weather are all so evocative that I felt myself reaching for audio tuning dials to clear static while reading.

In addition to the soundscape, Tim also paints a devastating ending as the narrator learns first-hand that Kraken Mare, and more specifically the Throat of the Kraken, is more than just a name. The actual narrative in this piece is a short one, but even through the brief time we are with the narrator, there is a sense of who this character is. This makes the final paragraph, in which the narrator’s request that someone tell their family, their friend, their someone that they love them is cut off, so crushing. Like the narrator, we assume that landing in Kraken Mare instead of Ligeia is the end for our unfortunate narrator. 

– MAD

Read Kraken Mare

Chosen by Chrissie Rohrman

In some stories, authors throw in a surprise twist that no one sees coming (cue the reddit threads with people saying they knew it from the first chapter if not the first page). With Chrissie’s story, you know that there’s going to be a twist. That knowledge, however, doesn’t diminish the enjoyment at all. In fact, it heightens it, because you are waiting, wondering what is going to happen and how it will flip the story on its head. You know the twist is coming because Sirene can’t win, or at least, we don’t want her to. We see this powerful witch–one who has admitted to animal slaughter and her plan to murder a young woman–attempting to take advantage of this poor girl, so we’re waiting to see if 1) Sirene will have a change of heart (which seems unlikely based on the opening paragraph) or 2) Lira will come out on top. It ends up being the second option in what can only be described as an intervention of destiny, and it works so well because even if the reader expected something to happen, Sirene is so confident throughout that her surprise at her own demise is doubly satisfying.

The story also gets at the idea that even if you follow the instructions to a tee, things may still not work out. It is possible that before embarking on her quest for immortality that Sirene was a good person, but the opening lets us know that she has “corrupted [her] own soul beyond recognition” as she’s committed horrible acts. She has done all that has been prescribed by the Ritual of Otune, then Lira, who has done none of it, reaps the rewards. Sometimes things work out for good people. Sometimes, as hard as we try, things just don’t seem to go our way. So let’s think about Sirene the next time we’re told to slaughter a few young animals as part of a recipe for immortality. 

– MAD

Read Chosen

Machine Learning by Holly Schofield

Finding the right narrative voice for a piece can be incredibly difficult. I’m sure we’ve all read or written stories where the idea was great, but the perspective or the narrator just didn’t quite fit. Sometimes, the best narrator matches the tone exactly. Other times, like with Holly’s story, it’s the conflict between the tone and the plot that makes a story sing. In ELRY-423, we have a child-like narrator I once characterized to Thomas as a Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls. ELRY-423 often interrupts the prose with sounds of adulation and joy as ELRY-423 experiences tingles while planting. The plot, however, culminates with ELRY-423 deciding the way to save the forest and get more tingles is to “[break] off the pink half-shell antennas that those particular humans had on the sides of their heads” and/or “put seedlings into those humans’ various openings and access panels.” In essence, to kill all humans (or at least the company bosses. Then their successors. Then their successors…).

This piece is also a great example of a standalone flash piece that hints to a future but doesn’t demand it. A lot of the stories we receive and ultimately reject feel like chapters of a larger story. Holly’s story definitely points to a future story–one where ELRY-423 unites the three hundred tree-planting drones to kill humans–but that aspect isn’t necessary to make this piece feel like a complete story. Within its 650 words, we meet the character, are introduced to a world and conflict, and see a complete arc: ELRY-423 starts like any drone but by the end, ELRY-423 is ready to start a revolution against the company. While future stories with ELRY-423 are possible, there is a sense of completeness at the end of this one that makes it a great example of flash-with-future-promise rather than a scene from a larger piece.

– MAD

Read Machine Learning

It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar by L.L. Lamando

Voice—It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar has it nailed, but what do I mean by that? For me, it means that without a word of physical description or action, the author has used diction, idiom, speech patterns, humor, and a variety of other tools to paint the perfect picture of the speaker. He didn’t even need two-way dialogue; one side of the conversation is enough for the reader to get an idea of exactly who’s speaking.

Now yes, because of Marvel, Loki is a household name in popular culture these days, but even before the name-drop, the reader has already formed a picture of someone charming and forward, a salesman with a winsome smile and a never-take-no attitude. In my head it’s all too easy to see him standing there in that locker room, probably in nothing but a towel (having come straight from the sauna), one foot up on the bench as he’s making his pitch. And doesn’t Loki slot perfectly into that characterization? That’s the power of a strong voice.

-TJG

Read It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar

Brick by Jude-Marie Green

There’s so much that works well about Brick–the narration’s sense of dramatic irony, the try-fail cycles which the main character goes through while building up to his final triumph–but what really drew me to this piece was its theme. 

Theme is a tricky thing to pull off. When done well, it can evoke and enlighten, but there’s a delicate balance between poignant and preachy. Often, authors lean too overtly on the “point” of the story, and the reader comes away feeling like they’ve been lectured to. 

Instead, Brick lets the plot illustrate its theme in a beautiful and subtle way. It should be apparent that our main character, Brick, has special needs, whether it be autism or something else. “There’s something missing from you, son,” Brick’s mom says to him, but despite this, Brick’s autism isn’t presented as a handicap; rather, his uniqueness is what makes him great. Long before Brick builds the device which allows him to fly like a superhero, he displays superhuman intelligence through a variety of experiments, and that’s cool to see.

Fun fact: The current World’s Strongest Man, Tom Stoltman of Scotland, has autism. Those who learn and think differently aren’t necessarily disadvantaged; they can do great things, just like Brick.

-TJG

Read Brick

Welcome to our Editorial Page! As part of the yearly subscription package, Thomas J. Griffin and M.A. Dosser (the co-Editors-in-Chief) have written short commentaries on each and every story published by Flash Point SF. These editorials include examinations of craft from the perspective of the editors—how various elements of the storytelling worked for them on a technical level—as well as general impressions of each piece.

Ready to find out what makes each of these stories stand out? Click any of the titles below to reveal the contents.

2022

The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor by Alexandra Grunberg

Everyone loves a good paradox. Much like an optical illusion fascinates the eye, readers love to try to wrap their brain around something which fundamentally resists understanding. The “infinite” apartment complex in The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor is just that, but this story isn’t just a thought experiment. No, in order to take a story from merely intriguing to compelling and satisfying, the reader needs more. They need conflict.

And so, the elevators go out. This would be an inconvenience for anyone in any multi-level apartment complex, but when you’re nearly 1000 floors up? The intrigue inherent in the premise melds with the plot turn to create the perfect tale of woman vs. environment, and the sense of futility derived from our main character’s attempt to reach the bottom only heightens the tension. Then, right at the end, we’re given a glimmer of hope—are those street lamps? Is she finally approaching the bottom?

Alas, in keeping with the promise of the premise, there is no bottom, as there is no top. Those are only stars below.

-TJG

Read The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor 

We’ll Keep It on File by Jordan Chase-Young

Anyone who’s ever told a joke (which is to say, everyone ever) knows that it’s much harder to get a laugh than you think. What seems hilarious in your head often loses its clarity somewhere between brain and mouth, and then you’re standing there with your hands in your pockets and a silly, unreciprocated grin on your face, feeling foolish. 

This goes doubly for writing humor. Crafting a good set-up and delivering the punchline at just the right moment are learned skills. So is writing good situational humor, and that’s just what We’ll Keep It on File has done. It’s all about expectations, you see. The story unfolds as a scenario all too familiar to most—a job interview. There’s plenty of tension inherent there, and for good reason. The stakes are high and no one likes being judged, and this time it’s all of humanity, with all our many, many shortcomings, being evaluated. The risk of falling short of the interviewer’s expectations is apparent, and the author does a great job building that tension further through the interviewer’s pointed questions and disapproving tone. But then the “punchline” hits us—humanity is OVER-qualified. We’ve still been denied entry to the Galactic Federation, but not for being a mess of a species; no, we’re actually too mature and committed to progress, and that would make the other member species feel inadequate. Such a ridiculous logic is nothing if not funny because of how well it subverts our expectations.

-TJG

Read We’ll Keep It on File

And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe by Birgit K. Gaiser

There are many things I look for as an editor when evaluating a submission, but one of the most crucial, which often moves stories with a promising start into the DECLINE category, is a lack of effective tension building. Your story can have sparkling prose, a sympathetic main character, unique and fascinating worldbuilding, but if it can’t push me to the edge of my seat, if it can’t compel me to read the next line and the next with a growing sense of dread or anticipation in my gut, then it may not have what it takes. 

This doesn’t automatically mean big action set pieces or stunning revelations, however. Effective tension can be quiet. It can grow slowly as a vague, uneasy feeling, or quickly as an unstoppable sense of doom. It can even be a single, lingering doubt—can the protagonist pull this off? The tension employed in And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe is a more subtle variation, but it’s built perfectly for the purposes of this particular plot. Our narrator is set up as a voyeur, observing but not interacting, and their observations are vaguely predatory, just enough to set off alarm bells in the reader’s head. Then we learn of the curse, and the revelation of what may happen only heightens the sense of tension, because the danger is dismissed, despite what we the readers know must be true. And yet there’s nothing we can do about it—the show must go on. Every chance given to the character in danger builds our fear and frustration more. By the time the ritual occurs and the curse is fulfilled, we’re filled with a sense of tragic fate, and the tension is released. It’s not a happy ending, but that was never promised in the first place; only a thrilling ride. 

-TJG

Read And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe

Pen-pals by Alexander Hewitt

Tropes get a bad rap. So often we hear them spoken as a dirty word. They are regarded as something to avoid, on the grounds that they are “unoriginal” or trite, or otherwise low-hanging fruit for the lazy plotter. 

This can all be true, I suppose, if the author goes about their use of tropes in a lazy way, but what many fail to mention in their critiques is this: tropes are tropes for a reason. They involve situations and characterizations that are immediately recognizable and often universal, and since good writing is all about making a relatable connection with the reader, a good trope, used well, can be an invaluable tool. 

Pen-pals has done just that by taking a classic horror trope (a ghost writing threatening messages on the mirror in blood) and thoughtfully pairing it with a narrative tone that undercuts our expectations of horror, replacing it with humor and irony. If the author had played the trope straight, we as readers may well have lost interest because we knew, or at least could make an informed guess, where the story was headed. But by “inverting” the trope, they’ve signaled that this story will not be what we expect, and there’s no better way to spark the reader’s curiosity than by surprising them. 

-TJG

Read Pen-pals

Mixed Signals by Aeryn Rudel

Post-apocalyptic stories are so often bleak, filled with speculative horrors of what humanity will devolve into when our continued existence is all we have left to lose. “Mixed Signals” begins by showing Sam and Colton trying to get supplies from an unnamed woman, and, from the get go, Aeryn already paints hope into this bleak world. While the ominous threat of Cappers exists, this unnamed woman is willing to brave their dangers to supply the resistance. And our two protagonists have found more than comradery as they’ve traveled and worked together in the resistance–they have found love. 

What stuck out to me the most in this story is the decision Sam and Colton make at the end. They exist in a world where supplies are limited and they have been relying on the kindness of a woman who has never even told them her name in order to survive. Yet, upon seeing an infant, there is no debate. They will take this child with them, they will keep her safe and provided for like her mother kept them, and, when she’s old enough to ask, they will tell her about her mother. The decision alone displays the goodness of both of these characters, but the fact that neither of them ever suggest an alternative is what really gets to the ethos of hope and possibility that suffuses “Mixed Signals.” 

– MAD

Read Mixed Signals

The Queen by Teresa Milbrodt

If you’ve seen ScreenRant’s “Pitch Meeting” series, you may know that a common trend in cinema is that villains are so often evil for evil’s sake. They lack motivation and seemingly only exist so the protagonist can have someone to foil. This isn’t always the case, of course. Some of the best villains, regardless of the media, are those that, when they’re given their moment, are nearly able to persuade the hero (and even the audience) to their point of view. The protagonist then has to question what they thought was true and decide how they plan to move forward. Sometimes I’m extremely frustrated with the protagonist for the path they chose; other times I’m jubilant and feel a deep satisfaction.

In “The Queen,” Teresa flips the typical script by crafting a great villain who is also our protagonist. Rather than having the story follow the person from the village who confronts the eponymous queen, the reader is with the queen the entire time. We hear her reasoning (she has to preserve the health and safety of the fairies and elves under her protection) and how she appealed to the villagers many times (even providing them with an alternative). We know the queen, even with her justifications, has done terrible things and murdered nearly the entire population of *at least* one village. We even hear her be fairly blasé about it. But when the potential hero’s swordpoint is at the queen’s breast and her only reaction is to proffer the villager a cup of tea, you can’t help but think: what would I do? And that moment, not one of frustration or satisication for what the villager chooses, but an immediate interpellation of the reader, makes “The Queen” all the more satisfying to read again and again. Particularly as your answer may change from day to day, moment to moment.

– MAD

Read The Queen

Time Accounted For by James Harris

At the end of 2021, I was reading a lot of Ted Chiang. This story grabbed me as being a piece with the deterministic themes in Chiang’s works involving time, particularly “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” We have published a number of stories that involve time travel at Flash Point SF, but this was the first where rather than the time travel being used to change an event, it was the cause. The narrator could not prevent Max’s injury through time traveling because the narrator’s attempt was the reason the injury happened to begin with. This kind of determinism elides the paradox inherent in so many time travel stories, where a person travels back to the past to change something, which will then change the future to the point that the person will never have a reason to travel back in the first place (for a great example of this, see the Futurama episode “Decision 3012.”) This isn’t the case in “Time Accounted For.” Instead, the true tragedy is the knowledge that the younger version of the narrator will work for years to prevent something that he will inevitably cause. 

– MAD

Read Time Accounted For

The Daily Communion by Patrick Hurley

Everyone’s heard the writing maxim “show, don’t tell,” but like all advice, what works well for someone, or some project, might not be as helpful for others. Case in point: The Daily Communion. With this story the opposite is true. 

There are two basic ways to narrate fiction: by summarizing action, or by dramatizing it. These distinctions are fairly self-explanatory, but it’s worth noting that dramatic narration is usually what people point to when they think of compelling prose, because it’s where the story feels most immediate, where the characters act in real time, where they converse and move and think and feel. 

The Daily Communion, by contrast, is written mostly in summary. You could argue that the narration isn’t even describing “actual” events (I mean, no work of fiction is, but that’s beside the point); instead, the story amounts to one big, hypothetical “for instance” of how the acolytes of Viaremora typically behave. There is no “drama.” And yet it works. But why?

For me, it comes down to a few things. First and foremost, it never hurts to be funny, and this story is hilarious, if in an understated fashion. Second, and if I said it once I’ve said it a million times, make your story relatable. Here, The Daily Communion picks the lowest of the hanging fruit–who among us doesn’t have visceral, perhaps rageful, memories of being stuck in crawling, senseless traffic? I can put myself there in an instant, can’t you? And third, and we’re gonna tie it all together here… sometimes people just love a good explanation. “Show don’t tell” is fine, and drama can be fun, but give me a good conspiracy theory, even a ridiculous one, and I’m hooked. You’re telling me there’s a reason for all the senseless traffic we wade through every morning? That it’s not just the banality of life, or random events of entropy unfolding in the most annoying way possible, but a deliberate act of emotional sabotage designed to feed a wanton god? There’s a reason conspiracy theories like the Illuminati, lizard people, ancient aliens, and so much more persist despite all evidence to the contrary, and it’s because making the mundane and relatable into something spectacular and compelling is one of the best ways there is for catching a reader’s attention. 

-TJG

Read The Daily Communion

Storm Wolves by Nathan Slemp

So much of Sci-fi and Fantasy is looking forward. How would this or that technology change the world? How would this event or that person or this encounter affect our future? Forecasting what’s to come has always been a celebrated part of the genre, but every once in a while, it can be just as fun to look back instead.

Secret Histories do just that, but in order to craft a believable narrative in this subgenre, you have to be willing and able to write in the margins of the textbook, in between the lines of the established “truth.” And to do this, Secret Histories must feel plausible. Could a special forces unit of werewolves have really wreaked havoc behind enemy lines in World War II? Maybe, but their impact would have to be slight, their mission covert, or else we’d have heard about them, right? The author of Storm Wolves understands this perfectly. If the Storm Wolves were out there winning the war single-handedly, storming the beaches, halting the German advance, killing Hitler in a theater full of Nazi brass (I’m looking at you, Tarantino), then the story loses its plausibility, and becomes something else altogether–Alternate History. Alternate Histories are fun too, but they’re a different thing, and like most sci-fi they are more forward-looking; they still ask how a certain thing might change the future, they’re simply looking at the future from some point in the past. 

If you’re wanting to write your own Secret History, don’t ask “how does this change the future?” Instead ask, “what have the stories of the past left unsaid?” It’s the intrigue implicit in this question which drives a good Secret History.

-TJG

Read Storm Wolves

One More Sunrise by S.J.C. Schreiber

A relatable theme is often what takes a story from good to great, but finding that something that resonates with the reader is easier said than done. It’s not as simple as identifying a universal truism (tis better to have loved and lost, yada yada) and then typing out the right keywords; you have to make the reader believe that the struggle is real. Readers can smell disingenuous sentiment from a mile away, so in order for a theme to become relatable, several elements have to align. It’s not enough to simply present your character with an obstacle. Their motivation for overcoming it must be sincere and grounded in their characterization. They must grapple earnestly with that obstacle, and whether or not they succeed, the stakes and the cost should be apparent. What did they give up in order to succeed? What did they lose through failure? Can we see the weight of those compromises in the actions and thoughts of the character moving forward?

One More Sunrise takes on a theme that I think many of us are all too familiar with these days. I like to think of themes as questions the story asks both the character and the reader, and for me the question here is, “What’s to be done in the face of despair?” As in real life, the world of the story faces a pandemic, though this version is much more severe, and it’s left our character stranded on the moon with no way home and no hope of rescue. It’s a nightmarish situation, and one that an empathetic reader will be immediately gripped by. “What would I do in that situation?” is always a question you want your reader to ask, because it means you’ve hooked them, but (importantly, I think) the character doesn’t answer that question in the way we expect. We can see the narrator grappling with the despair, but their answer to the central thematic question isn’t to capitulate; rather, they reach for silver linings, displaying resilience and mental fortitude in the face of overwhelming circumstance. It’s an important message, deftly crafted into the plot in such a way that the reader has, hopefully, learned something about themselves through their own interaction with the story. 

-TJG

Read One More Sunrise

2021

Spring or Winter’s Respite by Cameron Hunter

2021 was a difficult year for many people. 2020 was too. And it looks like 2022 will be as well. With all the difficulties and uncertainty in the world, this story really stood out for the moments of hope amidst the misery. This is a post-apocalyptic world in the vein of Children of Men. Not to that extent yet–as the lab is set to deliver its third child of the day–but it does seem to be moving in that direction. And Cameron makes the wise choice to not really explain why certain things have happened. There are brief gestures to the lowering sperm count in men and mentions that women do not want to risk pregnancy “for a multitude of reasons,” but it doesn’t go much beyond that. We know that the world has become a place that most people do not want to bring children into, even when there is the ability to do so through Dylan’s business. And that’s all we really need to know. The reader fills in the rest as we are given a tight, focused look at Dylan, preparing to ship/fly a child to her waiting parent(s).

It is Dylan’s interaction with the baby and the final moments of the story that made us decide this would be a perfect story for the end of 2021. Dylan’s business is failing and he’s lost some of the moments he most looked forward to, where he could see a nearly unprecedented view of the world from the mechanized stork’s camera. Yet, when he sees this infant, he is compelled to interact with her until she smiles, to bring joy to her, to himself, and to the reader who has just been confronted with the realities of this future. Then Cameron offers hope. We’re told many people don’t want to bring children into the world as it currently is, but this child will be able to have “her own opinions, her own opportunities to change things, her own future and squandered or realized potential.” And she’ll have her parent(s), for whom the delivery of this baby, Cameron spells out, could be the delivery of hope and meaning. As the baby coos in wonder as the stork carries her away, I couldn’t help but feel warm and think that there may be a deliverance of hope. At least eventually. That hope could be a child, a new job, a treatment, a message of love and caring from one close to us, or whatever the mechanized stork may carry.

– MAD

Read Spring or Winter’s Respite

A Little Good Magic by Jamie Lackey

The epistolary form can be hard to pull off. When presented through the guise of a letter or journal, the necessities of exposition and plot can feel unnatural if they aren’t handled with care and a soft touch. Would someone writing an entry in their personal diary really go to the trouble of explaining setting and character backstories, or would they just write, “Jan was mean to me again today,” foregoing superfluous details?

A Little Good Magic navigates this medium perfectly, though it does help that the main character, Lisa, is writing to Santa (who can see you when you’re sleeping, don’t forget). This allows her to touch lightly upon her ever-changing circumstances without weighing the prose down with repeated exposition. It requires a lot of faith in the reader, who is mostly left to put two and two together by themselves, but it keeps the story concise and immediate.  

-TJG

Read A Little Good Magic

You Are Not a Player Character by Greta Hayer

What makes You Are Not a Player Character such an enjoyable read is how relatable it is, though I do wonder if that relatability will be felt universally. This feels like a distinctly Millennial story to me, as I was immediately caught up by memories of playing RPG video games like Skyrim, The Witcher, Runescape, and more. It’s a strange thing to observe the NPCs (non-player characters) of games such as those. Their routines revolve like clockwork, and as your hero galivants around the map, it becomes all too easy to use and abuse those NPCs to your benefit. The morality of your actions never come into play because the point is moot; no one lives behind the blank stares, the scripted responses. They’re bits of code which only exist to serve you, to facilitate the completion of whatever quest you happen to be on.

But what if someone did live within that code? In asking that question, You Are Not a Player Character instantly becomes a haunting exploration into the nature of free will and consequence. What kinds of things would we allow ourselves to do, if we truly thought no one was watching? It’s an idea that almost feels too big for a single flash piece, but the author plays it perfectly, asking the question, then letting us decide how to feel and what to think.

-TJG

Read You Are Not a Player Character

Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit by Candace Cunard

Make the strange familiar(!!!)

I feel like I write a lot about the importance of making your story relatable, but that’s because it is important. Crafting a relatable idea, circumstance, or character is the quickest and surest way to engage with your reader, and Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit does just that in a really fun way. Everyone knows what it’s like to read hysterical Amazon reviews or irate YouTube comments, but by taking something strange and fantastical—a demon summoning circle—and making light of it in this familiar context, the story marries the interesting with the mundane and makes it relatable. Just the idea of customer reviews for a demon summoning circle is patently ridiculous, and it’s that juxtaposition that gives the story its humor.

-TJG

Read Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit

A Voice in the Winter by Shawn Kobb

I’m not being trite when I say this story is magical in the best way. For any story utilizing magic, we ask the readers to believe in something unbelievable, and to that end, it helps if we give our magic rules. A thing defined is a thing understood. Good stories then give depth to the magic as the plot progresses by showing how it’s applied firsthand within the boundaries we’ve set. 

Great stories take their magic one step further, not by breaking the rules, but by bending them, giving them nuance, showing how unexpected things can still happen within these boundaries, and that’s exactly what A Voice in the Winter has done. Through its magic it creates an engaging world with a unique dilemma, then hits us with a surprising, but absolutely fitting, twist to create that satisfying ending.

-TJG

Read A Voice in the Winter

I Don’t Burn Like You by Katherine Sankey

Writing flash fiction that stands on its own is difficult, and the fewer words you use, the harder it is to tell a complete story. It raises the difficulty even more when you attempt to subvert expectations within flash, yet Katherine was able to tell a complete story with a surprise punch at the end in a Drabble-length piece. The setting is one familiar to most readers, evoking witch-hunts and, for this US American, the Salem Witch Trials. Rather than a fantasy, however, this is science fiction. As always, these men accusing a woman of witchcraft are wrong. This time, though, the men are the ones to suffer, as the woman they are burning has a metallic form under her simulacra of flesh. And when the coating burns off, noxious gas is released that kills the men and leaves our narrator unharmed.

The reason the ending is such a surprise comes from our genre expectations. The narrator describes the ordeal as interesting, which is not a word most in this situation would use. Then the men’s pricks draw no blood, which is another sign that something isn’t right. The narrator even warns them that she doesn’t burn like they do–separating herself from them. But the reveal that the narrator is metallic rather than magical plays on the audience’s expectations. It is a “twist” that is perfectly telegraphed and, upon reread, is clear as day. The brevity of the piece only makes the ending’s punch hit harder.

– MAD

Read I Don’t Burn Like You

The Unchecked Box by Douglas DiCicco

While I am not a galactic emperor, I connected to Gorgalax’s plight in many ways. My second year as a PhD student, I was teaching at three colleges, taking four graduate seminars a semester, trying to publish articles, and working on my comprehensive exams. Plus editing Flash Point SF, getting married, and overindulging in junk food. It felt like there was so much going on and I was constantly working. Then, seemingly at once, I finished my coursework, I started only teaching for two schools, I passed my comps and had my prospectus approved, my articles drafts were submitted or published, Flash Point closed submissions, and I got married. I had time on my hands. And I had no idea what to do with myself. I, like Gorgalax, was consumed by boredom and found myself feeling increasingly depressed. After working so hard for so long to achieve a goal, I felt like I lacked a purpose. I felt adrift, like I was wasting time when I could have been doing other things (Note to readers: Relaxation is important. Don’t be like me.)

Unlike the sad paragraph I just wrote, Douglas’s story is very funny. Chris, Thomas, and I all noted how we laughed out loud following Gorgalax’s attempt at a knitting circle. But I include that description because there’s something extremely relatable in Gorgalax’s story. Even this ultra-powerful space emperor could feel adrift and struggle when the only thing they have left to accomplish is to relax and be finished with their task. Gorgalax jumps at the first chance he gets to return to the work he feels he’s best at after many failed attempts at hobbies. Hopefully others can find something that makes us happy and gives us purpose, or even accept that when a task is finished, we should take time to celebrate and bask in that moment. We check that last box, then we start a new list, just as I imagine Gorgalax will do as he takes down the newest rebellion.

– MAD

Read The Unchecked Box

The Memorial by Jon Hansen

If you asked me to define satire, I would probably struggle. It’s not humor, precisely, though good satire often uses humor effectively. And yet, it also doesn’t have to be serious–in fact, sometimes the more ridiculous the scenario, the better the message is conveyed. It’s not a sermon either; all satire functions to make a point, but with good satire the point is felt, not heard. No grand soliloquies with a character bluntly stating, “this is an example of a bad thing, and here is why it’s bad.” Instead, it’s demonstrated through the events of the scene, and the honest reactions of the characters to an untenable condition. Good satire presents us with a problem, then makes us stand face-to-face with those most affected. We can’t help but empathize, and through that empathy we learn a lesson. 

Again, satire is hard to define. In the end, it’s like porn–I know it when I see it. 

The idea of tearing down statues, and of questioning their legitimacy as pieces of enduring history, has been the subject of heated debate in America for a while now, but The Memorial tackles it with real cleverness. Through the statue of Baaolruith the First, we’re suddenly forced to wonder what other controversial statues might say if they could talk, and whether they’re really representing objective history, or simply the point of view of the individual they depict. Furthermore, how might that point of view run in contrast to the values we seek to uphold? It’s a question worthy of deep consideration, and we’re all the more willing to consider it because at no point do we feel talked down to, lectured or scolded. That’s the magic of satire. 

-TJG

Read The Memorial 

Ward F by William Kortbein

How much does a good premise matter when writing a story? Jim Butcher would argue not at all. Famously, the DRESDEN FILES author bet a fan that ideas didn’t matter, execution did, and to prove it he asked the fan for two lame ideas which he would then turn into a workable story. The fan suggested “Pokemon” and “The Lost Roman legion.” Jim took those prompts and ended up writing a best-selling, six-novel fantasy series called THE CODEX ALERA. 

…That said, a strong premise never hurts, and in Ward F we find an incredible sci-fi concept fulfilled by strong writing. The best SF stories, for me, are those that make me think as well as feel, and Ward F does that in spades. From the moment you become aware of the conflict’s true nature, the entire story becomes new. It’s the kind of twist that compels you to go back and read from the beginning, challenging you to apply what you’ve learned to the words. It’s brain-bending fun in the best way. 

-TJG

Read Ward F

One Last Trip by Teresa Pham-Carsillo

Time travel is a classic speculative fiction technology, being featured in works that pre-date Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. With the idea being so prominent in SF writing, there are a lot of opinions about what make a “good” or a “bad” time travel story. To me, Teresa’s story is excellent in how it ties the idea of time travel to confronting grief. When I was reading it, the bit where the narrator says that meeting a past version of yourself can lead to an “accidental annihilation of the current self, a self-immolation like the lit end of a cigarette pressed to the exact place you inhabited in the fabric of space and time” then follows that with “But this was my very reason for returning” really grabbed me. This story really feels like it’s about finding a way to deal with grief. Or perhaps a more accurate but crasser way of phrasing this: to use grief. In this story, grief led the narrator to build a time machine, meticulously test it, then use it to correct a wrong for which she blamed herself. 

The ending line of this story–that the narrator let go–raises questions as to what she’s letting go of. Is it her life (the clearest option) or is it her grief and guilt now that, through her own destruction, has been rectified in a new timeline? The scenes at the bar feel so lived in and true (at least from my own experience of crying over broken hearts to my friends and sister) and the wreck so devastating, that you can really understand the narrator’s grief-fuelled construction of her own demise. Yet, despite this doom and gloom assessment so far, the story doesn’t end merely with our narrator fading out of existence. It ends with a memory. A memory of a rabbit, one suffused with warmth and life, experiencing a new timeline. This memory provides a ray of hope that our narrator’s efforts are worth it. That her grief led to creating something great.

– MAD

Read One Last Trip 

By Any Other by Kristin Osani

There’s almost something alchemical to a good title. I’ve read dozens upon dozens of books, articles, and blog posts about the craft of fiction writing, but never once have I seen anyone try their hand at a “How To” for good story titles. The best seem to act as a sort of refrain for the piece they represent, highlighting some theme or event within the larger text in such a way that the title itself feels richer and more meaningful the further into the story one goes.

But how to come up with such a title? Beats me.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that titles stand out to me all the more as stories get shorter. With so few words to tell the tale, every single one counts, title included. It’s not just a name–it’s in conversation with the piece, lending context, framing. By Any Other is the perfect example of this, the story’s theme distilled down to three words. It’s not even a complete sentence(!), but it’s such a recognizable phrase that we all know how to finish the thought for the author, especially after we’ve read the story and understand its why

-TJG

Read By Any Other

The Set-Up by David Far

“Surprising yet inevitable.” Maybe you’ve heard this phrase thrown around before in narrative circles, but in case you haven’t, it’s nothing more than an attempt to sum up what makes a good twist ending. The “surprising” should be self-evident—it’s not a twist if it doesn’t surprise—but the important bit, for my money, is that “yet inevitable” on the back end. Good twists are so hard to pull off because they’re a verbal slight of hand. Show your hand too much, and your twist becomes predictable, but you need to show something, or you run the risk of making your reader feel confused or worse, foolish. Once the initial shock of the twist has worn off, there should always be moments in the text that the reader can call back to and say, “Ah, the clue was right here the whole time! I should have known!”

The Set-Up is a masterclass in twist endings. All the hints are right there in the text, but the narration doesn’t call them out; instead, it uses them as supporting evidence for an equally probable (and more preferable) alternative scenario, which will only unravel at the appointed hour, when the revelation of truth will be at its most devastating. 

You should always count on the narrator to give you the facts—just don’t expect the narrator to tell you the truth about them. They don’t call them “unreliable” for nothing. 

-TJG

Read The Set-Up

Heaven Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be by Karl El-Koura

This story is a study in dramatic irony. As the reader, we recognize fairly early on that the narrator isn’t in Heaven at all, but the other place, and it’s that awareness that lends the piece its humor. This dramatic irony is executed well throughout, but there’s one paragraph in particular, I think, around which the story’s humor turns.

“Second, there’s the heat…” 

If you didn’t pick up on the joke right from the start, this paragraph is a dead giveaway. Hell is hot, Heaven’s not, but even though it rather obviously lets the reader in on the joke, it still works for a couple reasons. First, it’s an implied twist rather than an overt one. The reader is now aware of the irony of the narrator’s words, while the narrator remains oblivious. Second, it comes early enough that the reader is now in on the joke for most of the story, making the reading experience that much more enjoyable. Twists don’t have to come at the end. That’s where we usually find them, and when done right they serve to shine new light back upon what we’ve just read, but in this case it actually works better coming earlier. The author isn’t trying to blow anyone’s mind; he wants to give you a reason to keep reading what would otherwise be a pretty scathing Yelp review of Heaven. 

-TJG

I openly admit that I didn’t pick up on the twist as early as Thomas did. For me, the “Second, there’s the heat” paragraph (and really that sentence) was when the lightbulb went off. Up until then, my main thought was “If we accept this, my mother will be furious with me.” Even before my realization, however, I was impressed with the witty prose and drawn into the piece. Afterwards, I found the dramatic irony both funny and exceptionally well executed. It pulls directly from the reader’s expectations and builds to the point where Karl switches from winking at the reader to nudging them in the ribs with “Hell, I’d settle for a middle-management type…”

I agree with Thomas that one of the strongest aspects of Karl’s story is that the twist comes early enough that rather than shining a new light on the story you’ve just read, you get to enjoy the bulk of the piece aware of the twist while the narrator is oblivious. I, personally, felt quite intelligent and doffed my tweed jacket and elbow patches upon figuring it out at the start of the third paragraph, seeing there was over half of the story to go. It doesn’t hurt that the story is funny regardless of if you catch on from the get go or you don’t realize until the narrator admits that they didn’t not give into their baser instincts while still alive.

-MAD

Read Heaven Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be

Amanita by Dawn Vogel

With Amanita, it’s all about the sensory details. The idea of a psychedelic, pseudo-magical mushroom trip isn’t enough; the author combines sight, touch, taste, and smell in concrete ways that draw the reader in and make the experience feel real and concrete in our minds. 

This story also does well to cultivate a sense of danger. “There was a fine line between poisoned to death and poisoned to dream” is such a strong sentence because it serves multiple ends, letting us know what the mushrooms are for, as well as alerting us to their risks. This gives the story a baseline tension that Amanita maintains throughout as she works against the clock to draw her charges out of their dreams before she herself succumbs to the mushrooms’ poison.

-TJG 

Read Amanita

Giving Up the Ghost by Aeryn Rudel

I’ve written elsewhere about how time travel is a classic speculative fiction device, one that we have seen often in film, television, novels, etc. This story, however, really surprised me in the best way possible. One reason was the stipulation of the time travel: you get three hours. One implication of this is that after the job is done, you still have time in whatever timeline you are in before you come back to the present to see if everything has changed. And that period of time after was the most surprising aspect of this story. When I first read this, I assumed the job our narrator was sent to do would take up most of the narrative. The expectation is set as an older agent travels twenty-nine years into the past along with a silenced .22 pistol that this will be an action-packed thriller in the vein of Looper. But it ends up being so much more than that. 

The scenes with the narrator and her father drip with emotion, and it is clear even before the narrator says it explicitly that she lost her father sometime between 1992 and 2021. The reunion is heart wrenching for the narrator and for the reader. It’s also something I feel many stories would relegate to a brief interlude between action. This piece reminds me of how Vince Gilligan said Breaking Bad was about the moments in between, where we see characters taking care of the things that most films and series skip over. This story is largely about the moment in between the assassination and the return to the future. It’s about a daughter getting to connect with her deceased father and telling him one last time that she loves him. And it’s all the better for focusing on the emotion over the action.

– MAD

Read Giving Up the Ghost

Never-ending Dawn by MM Schreier

Frame tales are tricky. Too often the frame itself feels like a gimmick, a means to an end. The author wants to tell a story a certain way, but they can’t find a natural opening, or they want to ease the reader into the action, introduce the characters and give the real story context so we fully appreciate what’s going on when we finally get to the good stuff. And thus, a frame is born.

What makes Never-ending Dawn so clever is that the tale-within-the-tale does this in return for the frame, giving it depth and stakes we didn’t realize were present at the story’s beginning. This is how a good frame tale works, by making the frame count for more than just set up. In fact, the frame is where the heart of this story actually resides, in Ella’s present, where she still carries with her the consequences of her past choices, as well as the weight of more hard choices to come. 

-TJG

Read Never-ending Dawn

Alien Taxidermy and Love Have Four Things in Common by Addison Smith

There are two things I think whenever I read this story. The first is that I can’t help but hear it narrated in Sam Elliott’s deep drawl, which is probably pretty idiosyncratic to me and not at all what Addison intended. But maybe! The second is that I’m amazed with how Addison weaves together the description of the taxidermy process and the narrator’s lost love, especially in the second half where the two feel inseparable. The taxidermy portions provide such detailed description of this space chicken that even without knowledge of what goes into taxidermy, it feels real. And the love that’s expressed throughout is both tragic and visceral. You can feel the pain and the warmth through the prose. When the narrator describes the fear that held them back–a single-sentence paragraph in the middle of longer, more clinical descriptions–it feels like the love, the pain, and the regret is bursting out, unable to be contained. Elsewhere, the passages on love fit seamlessly into the end of taxidermy-focused paragraphs, indicating how the narrator’s love for this person infuses everything they do.

I particularly enjoy how the ending functions in the narrative. It both explains what we have read before, giving the reader a greater appreciation and understanding of the story on a reread, and completes the arc of the narrator. The narrator has expressed fear, regret and longing, but the end is where the narrator takes a stand and makes a definitive statement. It’s no longer that the narrator imagines catching their love as they fall from the sky or reflecting on how they should have done more. Instead, it ends with a promise of growth, reuniting, and, of course, of love.

– MAD

Read Alien Taxidermy and Love Have Four Things in Common

From Iron Freed by Laura Duerr

Often in submitted flash pieces, we see that authors choose between focusing on developing the narrative or the worldbuilding–either giving us a compelling story with interesting characters or a world that is fleshed out and immersive. It is rare that we get both, but Laura, in this story, provides an incredibly well-described world, with visuals that leap off the page, as well as a narrative that provides a beginning, middle, and end. From the gown Gwen wears as she assists the magician on stage, to Gwen’s race through Venice, to the depiction of the fae at the portal, every moment of the story is drawn with vivid prose that paints the backdrop to a story of women retaliating against and escaping a rapist.

In the notes on the illustration, Laura told Kevin that as the story was set in the 1880s-90s, the inspiration for the outfits could come from something like The Prestige. As The Prestige was/still is one of my favorite films, I immediately drew this connection while reading, which only heightened my enjoyment of it. But while Christopher Nolan uses science to fuel his fantasy in The Prestige, Laura fully embraces the magical elements, combining a magician of the period with fae folk. While real magic brings the fae into the world and real magic allows Gwen to escape it, the narrative is grounded through the realization and actions of Gwen, the only non-magical character in the narrative.

– MAD

Read From Iron Freed

The Glitter and the Grey by Matt McHugh

If you’ve come to the editorials looking for hints and tips about what we as editors want, I’ll start this with one: I have a major soft spot for stories that involve music. Thomas does too. Music is something that is often referred to as “universal” (I’m pretty sure there was a Harvard study in 2019 that gained attention in the popular press that called music a “universal language,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it back in the 1800s as well). Cultures from around the world have independently developed their own instruments, styles, and traditions involving music. Yet, much like the beauty pageant Miss Universe, this concept of “universal” is contained to our planet. Speculative Fiction, then, allows us to take this universal language and see it play out across the universe. Who would have thought there was Jazz (or I guess more accurately “Jizz”) on Tatooine? And music is central to stories by SF authors like Kingsley Amis and J.G. Ballard. 

With the universality of music, it makes sense that first contact could be handled well by those with great skill in this universal language, which is exactly what Matt does in this piece. As fourteen coiffed and gowned matronly musicians meet fourteen classic Roswell Greys, there is no strife. Both groups seek to learn about one another and share their own cultures. While many stories are coy with their themes, Matt has the theme spoken loudly and clearly by Lady Racine, and ends the story with the start of the chorus to the song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

– MAD

Read The Glitter and the Grey

Pink Marble by Zoe Kaplan

Opening lines can make or break a story. Fail to captivate a reader in those first few moments and they might quit on you before they ever get to “the good part.”

The author of Pink Marble understood the assignment. There’s nothing fancy or complicated about “The Queen had turned to stone,” but therein lies its power. The line is direct and concise, telling you exactly what’s happened (ostensibly), and yet there’s a compelling question inherent to the sentence: HOW did the Queen turn to stone? A good mystery, perhaps more than any other literary device, will keep readers turning the page.

This story’s style is also a winner. It calls to mind the opening passages of a classic fairy tale, and the narrative tone is laced with a subtle dramatic irony that can only be fully appreciated once the story is finished and the twist revealed. Pink Marble was one of our most popular stories for all of 2021 and it’s not hard to see why. 

-TJG

Read Pink Marble

DEPLOY by C.T. Dinh

Speculative fiction is an ideal cultural technology for imagining futures that could be. In this story, C.T. does a wonderful job succinctly painting a version of our future. Einstein was wrong (how about that). World War IV wasn’t fought with sticks and stones, because World War III never happened. Instead, it was more like a war of many worlds. This story does an excellent job of smuggling much larger worldbuilding ideas into a fairly contained story about one woman’s mental turmoil as she accomplished her work assignment. Of course, Pallas is about to collapse a star, so a bit of existential doubt would seem reasonable. But the way other characters react is notable. Xenozoologists have checked out the system nine lightyears away as if it’s a typical task, she has a manager who told her to relax and compares the collapse to dominos, and while her coworkers watch her intently, there is no pomp and circumstance. The storyworld C.T. crafts is one in which collapsing a star, while a big deal for Pallas as an individual, seems somewhat mundane. Even the ending conveys this, where Pallas completes the job, but all that happens is a display notice that the deployment was successful. No big bang, no celebration, just more waiting to see if anything actually happened. This future is fleshed out through details small and large and turns what we would consider grandiose into humdrum for these characters. 

Due to this take on the future, the most affecting part of the story is when Pallas imagines going home and seeing her sons. Similar to the end-of-day dinner conversations many of us have, when Pallas thinks about how she’ll respond to a question about how her day was, she’ll merely answer fine. Because that’s what it will be. Throughout the entire piece, C.T. creates a world that is so lived in that the typical wonder of speculative fiction is confined to the thoughts of one person, while the rest of the world (or even rest of the universe) continues as if collapsing a star just happens.

– MAD

Read DEPLOY

The Wreck of the Douceur Suprême by Karter Mycroft

This story grabbed me from the very beginning, and not just because it had a great opening line. Rather, Karter included a footnote on the title. A footnote in French. This combined with the opening line about it not being easy to sail on a box of Kleenex perfectly sets the tone for this story. But then the story surprises you with a deeply emotional core. The narrator and the rest of the crew choose their survival over their captain, resulting in a mutiny that may or may not have been necessary for their final arrival in the paradise that is the great desert of linens. The debated regret in the final paragraphs and the Moon’s potential wry smile in the epilogue provide a wonderfully emotional ending that somehow completely fits with the tone Karter establishes in the opening lines.

I feel I have to mention the art direction meeting for the story’s illustration as well. Another thing that I love about this piece is that Karter crafts an immersive world while also leaving a lot of the imagery completely up to the reader’s imagination. Our artist, Kevin, had a clear vision of what the sailors should look like–one that completely ran against what Chris, Thomas, and I thought. We debated how specific Kevin should get with the art, and we ended up deciding to focus on the ship rather than the sailors–letting the reader come to their conclusion of what these sailors with their lost shedhair pasta and soapscum snacks would look like. 

– MAD

Read The Wreck of the Douceur Suprême

Welcome Aboard by Simon Kewin

The humor in this was what immediately grabbed me and the class critique was what kept me invested for the long haul. The writing perfectly captures the tone of a pre-flight message, only instead of telling passengers to keep their trays in an upright position, the announcement lets them know that DwarfStar passengers should remain calm if they wake up and find themselves paralyzed. Then offers no further information.

This aspect of three tiers of passengers works in a delightfully dark comic critique. While NovaStar passengers are told they have access to gyms, bars, pools, and even theaters, the MainSequence passengers are told “room is inevitably limited on an interplanetary spaceship.” Then the DwarfStar passengers are told to get in orderly lines for their anesthesia. What is imposed as a restriction on one group of people is gleefully given to others. Yet in this construction of the narrative, the information is freely given and spelled out to all passengers, who presumably accept the divisions as part of the flight. This metaphor extends to their menu options and even for their safety in the event of a cataclysmic event. NovaStar passengers will likely be unaware anything has happened due to the ability of their escape pods to maintain their comfort while it is recommended DwarfStar passengers say their final farewells before departing, just in case. Then the message ends with a cheery sign off. It’s a frustratingly hilarious and biting critique that is a great read.

– MAD

Read Welcome Aboard

Kraken Mare by Tim Major

The audio log formatting of this story really drew me into it, as it made me feel like I was hunkered over a radio, trying to make out what ended up (presumably) being the final words of the narrator. Somehow, Tim is able to create an audioscape in very few words. The interruptions to the intelligibility of the audio log both enable the pace and tension to remain high throughout and to draw Kraken Mare’s namesake in the reader’s mind without having to spend any words doing so. The roars, the partial artefacting, and the narrator’s confusion over the weather are all so evocative that I felt myself reaching for audio tuning dials to clear static while reading.

In addition to the soundscape, Tim also paints a devastating ending as the narrator learns first-hand that Kraken Mare, and more specifically the Throat of the Kraken, is more than just a name. The actual narrative in this piece is a short one, but even through the brief time we are with the narrator, there is a sense of who this character is. This makes the final paragraph, in which the narrator’s request that someone tell their family, their friend, their someone that they love them is cut off, so crushing. Like the narrator, we assume that landing in Kraken Mare instead of Ligeia is the end for our unfortunate narrator. 

– MAD

Read Kraken Mare

Chosen by Chrissie Rohrman

In some stories, authors throw in a surprise twist that no one sees coming (cue the reddit threads with people saying they knew it from the first chapter if not the first page). With Chrissie’s story, you know that there’s going to be a twist. That knowledge, however, doesn’t diminish the enjoyment at all. In fact, it heightens it, because you are waiting, wondering what is going to happen and how it will flip the story on its head. You know the twist is coming because Sirene can’t win, or at least, we don’t want her to. We see this powerful witch–one who has admitted to animal slaughter and her plan to murder a young woman–attempting to take advantage of this poor girl, so we’re waiting to see if 1) Sirene will have a change of heart (which seems unlikely based on the opening paragraph) or 2) Lira will come out on top. It ends up being the second option in what can only be described as an intervention of destiny, and it works so well because even if the reader expected something to happen, Sirene is so confident throughout that her surprise at her own demise is doubly satisfying.

The story also gets at the idea that even if you follow the instructions to a tee, things may still not work out. It is possible that before embarking on her quest for immortality that Sirene was a good person, but the opening lets us know that she has “corrupted [her] own soul beyond recognition” as she’s committed horrible acts. She has done all that has been prescribed by the Ritual of Otune, then Lira, who has done none of it, reaps the rewards. Sometimes things work out for good people. Sometimes, as hard as we try, things just don’t seem to go our way. So let’s think about Sirene the next time we’re told to slaughter a few young animals as part of a recipe for immortality. 

– MAD

Read Chosen

Machine Learning by Holly Schofield

Finding the right narrative voice for a piece can be incredibly difficult. I’m sure we’ve all read or written stories where the idea was great, but the perspective or the narrator just didn’t quite fit. Sometimes, the best narrator matches the tone exactly. Other times, like with Holly’s story, it’s the conflict between the tone and the plot that makes a story sing. In ELRY-423, we have a child-like narrator I once characterized to Thomas as a Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls. ELRY-423 often interrupts the prose with sounds of adulation and joy as ELRY-423 experiences tingles while planting. The plot, however, culminates with ELRY-423 deciding the way to save the forest and get more tingles is to “[break] off the pink half-shell antennas that those particular humans had on the sides of their heads” and/or “put seedlings into those humans’ various openings and access panels.” In essence, to kill all humans (or at least the company bosses. Then their successors. Then their successors…).

This piece is also a great example of a standalone flash piece that hints to a future but doesn’t demand it. A lot of the stories we receive and ultimately reject feel like chapters of a larger story. Holly’s story definitely points to a future story–one where ELRY-423 unites the three hundred tree-planting drones to kill humans–but that aspect isn’t necessary to make this piece feel like a complete story. Within its 650 words, we meet the character, are introduced to a world and conflict, and see a complete arc: ELRY-423 starts like any drone but by the end, ELRY-423 is ready to start a revolution against the company. While future stories with ELRY-423 are possible, there is a sense of completeness at the end of this one that makes it a great example of flash-with-future-promise rather than a scene from a larger piece.

– MAD

Read Machine Learning

It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar by L.L. Lamando

Voice—It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar has it nailed, but what do I mean by that? For me, it means that without a word of physical description or action, the author has used diction, idiom, speech patterns, humor, and a variety of other tools to paint the perfect picture of the speaker. He didn’t even need two-way dialogue; one side of the conversation is enough for the reader to get an idea of exactly who’s speaking.

Now yes, because of Marvel, Loki is a household name in popular culture these days, but even before the name-drop, the reader has already formed a picture of someone charming and forward, a salesman with a winsome smile and a never-take-no attitude. In my head it’s all too easy to see him standing there in that locker room, probably in nothing but a towel (having come straight from the sauna), one foot up on the bench as he’s making his pitch. And doesn’t Loki slot perfectly into that characterization? That’s the power of a strong voice.

-TJG

Read It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar

Brick by Jude-Marie Green

There’s so much that works well about Brick–the narration’s sense of dramatic irony, the try-fail cycles which the main character goes through while building up to his final triumph–but what really drew me to this piece was its theme. 

Theme is a tricky thing to pull off. When done well, it can evoke and enlighten, but there’s a delicate balance between poignant and preachy. Often, authors lean too overtly on the “point” of the story, and the reader comes away feeling like they’ve been lectured to. 

Instead, Brick lets the plot illustrate its theme in a beautiful and subtle way. It should be apparent that our main character, Brick, has special needs, whether it be autism or something else. “There’s something missing from you, son,” Brick’s mom says to him, but despite this, Brick’s autism isn’t presented as a handicap; rather, his uniqueness is what makes him great. Long before Brick builds the device which allows him to fly like a superhero, he displays superhuman intelligence through a variety of experiments, and that’s cool to see.

Fun fact: The current World’s Strongest Man, Tom Stoltman of Scotland, has autism. Those who learn and think differently aren’t necessarily disadvantaged; they can do great things, just like Brick.

-TJG

Read Brick

Welcome to our Editorial Page! As part of the yearly subscription package, Thomas J. Griffin and M.A. Dosser (the co-Editors-in-Chief) have written short commentaries on each and every story published by Flash Point SF. These editorials include examinations of craft from the perspective of the editors—how various elements of the storytelling worked for them on a technical level—as well as general impressions of each piece.

Ready to find out what makes each of these stories stand out? Click any of the titles below to reveal the contents.

2022

The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor by Alexandra Grunberg

Everyone loves a good paradox. Much like an optical illusion fascinates the eye, readers love to try to wrap their brain around something which fundamentally resists understanding. The “infinite” apartment complex in The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor is just that, but this story isn’t just a thought experiment. No, in order to take a story from merely intriguing to compelling and satisfying, the reader needs more. They need conflict.

And so, the elevators go out. This would be an inconvenience for anyone in any multi-level apartment complex, but when you’re nearly 1000 floors up? The intrigue inherent in the premise melds with the plot turn to create the perfect tale of woman vs. environment, and the sense of futility derived from our main character’s attempt to reach the bottom only heightens the tension. Then, right at the end, we’re given a glimmer of hope—are those street lamps? Is she finally approaching the bottom?

Alas, in keeping with the promise of the premise, there is no bottom, as there is no top. Those are only stars below.

-TJG

Read The Seven-Hundred and Fifty-Eighth Floor 

We’ll Keep It on File by Jordan Chase-Young

Anyone who’s ever told a joke (which is to say, everyone ever) knows that it’s much harder to get a laugh than you think. What seems hilarious in your head often loses its clarity somewhere between brain and mouth, and then you’re standing there with your hands in your pockets and a silly, unreciprocated grin on your face, feeling foolish. 

This goes doubly for writing humor. Crafting a good set-up and delivering the punchline at just the right moment are learned skills. So is writing good situational humor, and that’s just what We’ll Keep It on File has done. It’s all about expectations, you see. The story unfolds as a scenario all too familiar to most—a job interview. There’s plenty of tension inherent there, and for good reason. The stakes are high and no one likes being judged, and this time it’s all of humanity, with all our many, many shortcomings, being evaluated. The risk of falling short of the interviewer’s expectations is apparent, and the author does a great job building that tension further through the interviewer’s pointed questions and disapproving tone. But then the “punchline” hits us—humanity is OVER-qualified. We’ve still been denied entry to the Galactic Federation, but not for being a mess of a species; no, we’re actually too mature and committed to progress, and that would make the other member species feel inadequate. Such a ridiculous logic is nothing if not funny because of how well it subverts our expectations.

-TJG

Read We’ll Keep It on File

And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe by Birgit K. Gaiser

There are many things I look for as an editor when evaluating a submission, but one of the most crucial, which often moves stories with a promising start into the DECLINE category, is a lack of effective tension building. Your story can have sparkling prose, a sympathetic main character, unique and fascinating worldbuilding, but if it can’t push me to the edge of my seat, if it can’t compel me to read the next line and the next with a growing sense of dread or anticipation in my gut, then it may not have what it takes. 

This doesn’t automatically mean big action set pieces or stunning revelations, however. Effective tension can be quiet. It can grow slowly as a vague, uneasy feeling, or quickly as an unstoppable sense of doom. It can even be a single, lingering doubt—can the protagonist pull this off? The tension employed in And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe is a more subtle variation, but it’s built perfectly for the purposes of this particular plot. Our narrator is set up as a voyeur, observing but not interacting, and their observations are vaguely predatory, just enough to set off alarm bells in the reader’s head. Then we learn of the curse, and the revelation of what may happen only heightens the sense of tension, because the danger is dismissed, despite what we the readers know must be true. And yet there’s nothing we can do about it—the show must go on. Every chance given to the character in danger builds our fear and frustration more. By the time the ritual occurs and the curse is fulfilled, we’re filled with a sense of tragic fate, and the tension is released. It’s not a happy ending, but that was never promised in the first place; only a thrilling ride. 

-TJG

Read And Fill Me from the Crown to the Toe

Pen-pals by Alexander Hewitt

Tropes get a bad rap. So often we hear them spoken as a dirty word. They are regarded as something to avoid, on the grounds that they are “unoriginal” or trite, or otherwise low-hanging fruit for the lazy plotter. 

This can all be true, I suppose, if the author goes about their use of tropes in a lazy way, but what many fail to mention in their critiques is this: tropes are tropes for a reason. They involve situations and characterizations that are immediately recognizable and often universal, and since good writing is all about making a relatable connection with the reader, a good trope, used well, can be an invaluable tool. 

Pen-pals has done just that by taking a classic horror trope (a ghost writing threatening messages on the mirror in blood) and thoughtfully pairing it with a narrative tone that undercuts our expectations of horror, replacing it with humor and irony. If the author had played the trope straight, we as readers may well have lost interest because we knew, or at least could make an informed guess, where the story was headed. But by “inverting” the trope, they’ve signaled that this story will not be what we expect, and there’s no better way to spark the reader’s curiosity than by surprising them. 

-TJG

Read Pen-pals

Mixed Signals by Aeryn Rudel

Post-apocalyptic stories are so often bleak, filled with speculative horrors of what humanity will devolve into when our continued existence is all we have left to lose. “Mixed Signals” begins by showing Sam and Colton trying to get supplies from an unnamed woman, and, from the get go, Aeryn already paints hope into this bleak world. While the ominous threat of Cappers exists, this unnamed woman is willing to brave their dangers to supply the resistance. And our two protagonists have found more than comradery as they’ve traveled and worked together in the resistance–they have found love. 

What stuck out to me the most in this story is the decision Sam and Colton make at the end. They exist in a world where supplies are limited and they have been relying on the kindness of a woman who has never even told them her name in order to survive. Yet, upon seeing an infant, there is no debate. They will take this child with them, they will keep her safe and provided for like her mother kept them, and, when she’s old enough to ask, they will tell her about her mother. The decision alone displays the goodness of both of these characters, but the fact that neither of them ever suggest an alternative is what really gets to the ethos of hope and possibility that suffuses “Mixed Signals.” 

– MAD

Read Mixed Signals

The Queen by Teresa Milbrodt

If you’ve seen ScreenRant’s “Pitch Meeting” series, you may know that a common trend in cinema is that villains are so often evil for evil’s sake. They lack motivation and seemingly only exist so the protagonist can have someone to foil. This isn’t always the case, of course. Some of the best villains, regardless of the media, are those that, when they’re given their moment, are nearly able to persuade the hero (and even the audience) to their point of view. The protagonist then has to question what they thought was true and decide how they plan to move forward. Sometimes I’m extremely frustrated with the protagonist for the path they chose; other times I’m jubilant and feel a deep satisfaction.

In “The Queen,” Teresa flips the typical script by crafting a great villain who is also our protagonist. Rather than having the story follow the person from the village who confronts the eponymous queen, the reader is with the queen the entire time. We hear her reasoning (she has to preserve the health and safety of the fairies and elves under her protection) and how she appealed to the villagers many times (even providing them with an alternative). We know the queen, even with her justifications, has done terrible things and murdered nearly the entire population of *at least* one village. We even hear her be fairly blasé about it. But when the potential hero’s swordpoint is at the queen’s breast and her only reaction is to proffer the villager a cup of tea, you can’t help but think: what would I do? And that moment, not one of frustration or satisication for what the villager chooses, but an immediate interpellation of the reader, makes “The Queen” all the more satisfying to read again and again. Particularly as your answer may change from day to day, moment to moment.

– MAD

Read The Queen

Time Accounted For by James Harris

At the end of 2021, I was reading a lot of Ted Chiang. This story grabbed me as being a piece with the deterministic themes in Chiang’s works involving time, particularly “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” We have published a number of stories that involve time travel at Flash Point SF, but this was the first where rather than the time travel being used to change an event, it was the cause. The narrator could not prevent Max’s injury through time traveling because the narrator’s attempt was the reason the injury happened to begin with. This kind of determinism elides the paradox inherent in so many time travel stories, where a person travels back to the past to change something, which will then change the future to the point that the person will never have a reason to travel back in the first place (for a great example of this, see the Futurama episode “Decision 3012.”) This isn’t the case in “Time Accounted For.” Instead, the true tragedy is the knowledge that the younger version of the narrator will work for years to prevent something that he will inevitably cause. 

– MAD

Read Time Accounted For

The Daily Communion by Patrick Hurley

Everyone’s heard the writing maxim “show, don’t tell,” but like all advice, what works well for someone, or some project, might not be as helpful for others. Case in point: The Daily Communion. With this story the opposite is true. 

There are two basic ways to narrate fiction: by summarizing action, or by dramatizing it. These distinctions are fairly self-explanatory, but it’s worth noting that dramatic narration is usually what people point to when they think of compelling prose, because it’s where the story feels most immediate, where the characters act in real time, where they converse and move and think and feel. 

The Daily Communion, by contrast, is written mostly in summary. You could argue that the narration isn’t even describing “actual” events (I mean, no work of fiction is, but that’s beside the point); instead, the story amounts to one big, hypothetical “for instance” of how the acolytes of Viaremora typically behave. There is no “drama.” And yet it works. But why?

For me, it comes down to a few things. First and foremost, it never hurts to be funny, and this story is hilarious, if in an understated fashion. Second, and if I said it once I’ve said it a million times, make your story relatable. Here, The Daily Communion picks the lowest of the hanging fruit–who among us doesn’t have visceral, perhaps rageful, memories of being stuck in crawling, senseless traffic? I can put myself there in an instant, can’t you? And third, and we’re gonna tie it all together here… sometimes people just love a good explanation. “Show don’t tell” is fine, and drama can be fun, but give me a good conspiracy theory, even a ridiculous one, and I’m hooked. You’re telling me there’s a reason for all the senseless traffic we wade through every morning? That it’s not just the banality of life, or random events of entropy unfolding in the most annoying way possible, but a deliberate act of emotional sabotage designed to feed a wanton god? There’s a reason conspiracy theories like the Illuminati, lizard people, ancient aliens, and so much more persist despite all evidence to the contrary, and it’s because making the mundane and relatable into something spectacular and compelling is one of the best ways there is for catching a reader’s attention. 

-TJG

Read The Daily Communion

Storm Wolves by Nathan Slemp

So much of Sci-fi and Fantasy is looking forward. How would this or that technology change the world? How would this event or that person or this encounter affect our future? Forecasting what’s to come has always been a celebrated part of the genre, but every once in a while, it can be just as fun to look back instead.

Secret Histories do just that, but in order to craft a believable narrative in this subgenre, you have to be willing and able to write in the margins of the textbook, in between the lines of the established “truth.” And to do this, Secret Histories must feel plausible. Could a special forces unit of werewolves have really wreaked havoc behind enemy lines in World War II? Maybe, but their impact would have to be slight, their mission covert, or else we’d have heard about them, right? The author of Storm Wolves understands this perfectly. If the Storm Wolves were out there winning the war single-handedly, storming the beaches, halting the German advance, killing Hitler in a theater full of Nazi brass (I’m looking at you, Tarantino), then the story loses its plausibility, and becomes something else altogether–Alternate History. Alternate Histories are fun too, but they’re a different thing, and like most sci-fi they are more forward-looking; they still ask how a certain thing might change the future, they’re simply looking at the future from some point in the past. 

If you’re wanting to write your own Secret History, don’t ask “how does this change the future?” Instead ask, “what have the stories of the past left unsaid?” It’s the intrigue implicit in this question which drives a good Secret History.

-TJG

Read Storm Wolves

One More Sunrise by S.J.C. Schreiber

A relatable theme is often what takes a story from good to great, but finding that something that resonates with the reader is easier said than done. It’s not as simple as identifying a universal truism (tis better to have loved and lost, yada yada) and then typing out the right keywords; you have to make the reader believe that the struggle is real. Readers can smell disingenuous sentiment from a mile away, so in order for a theme to become relatable, several elements have to align. It’s not enough to simply present your character with an obstacle. Their motivation for overcoming it must be sincere and grounded in their characterization. They must grapple earnestly with that obstacle, and whether or not they succeed, the stakes and the cost should be apparent. What did they give up in order to succeed? What did they lose through failure? Can we see the weight of those compromises in the actions and thoughts of the character moving forward?

One More Sunrise takes on a theme that I think many of us are all too familiar with these days. I like to think of themes as questions the story asks both the character and the reader, and for me the question here is, “What’s to be done in the face of despair?” As in real life, the world of the story faces a pandemic, though this version is much more severe, and it’s left our character stranded on the moon with no way home and no hope of rescue. It’s a nightmarish situation, and one that an empathetic reader will be immediately gripped by. “What would I do in that situation?” is always a question you want your reader to ask, because it means you’ve hooked them, but (importantly, I think) the character doesn’t answer that question in the way we expect. We can see the narrator grappling with the despair, but their answer to the central thematic question isn’t to capitulate; rather, they reach for silver linings, displaying resilience and mental fortitude in the face of overwhelming circumstance. It’s an important message, deftly crafted into the plot in such a way that the reader has, hopefully, learned something about themselves through their own interaction with the story. 

-TJG

Read One More Sunrise

2021

Spring or Winter’s Respite by Cameron Hunter

2021 was a difficult year for many people. 2020 was too. And it looks like 2022 will be as well. With all the difficulties and uncertainty in the world, this story really stood out for the moments of hope amidst the misery. This is a post-apocalyptic world in the vein of Children of Men. Not to that extent yet–as the lab is set to deliver its third child of the day–but it does seem to be moving in that direction. And Cameron makes the wise choice to not really explain why certain things have happened. There are brief gestures to the lowering sperm count in men and mentions that women do not want to risk pregnancy “for a multitude of reasons,” but it doesn’t go much beyond that. We know that the world has become a place that most people do not want to bring children into, even when there is the ability to do so through Dylan’s business. And that’s all we really need to know. The reader fills in the rest as we are given a tight, focused look at Dylan, preparing to ship/fly a child to her waiting parent(s).

It is Dylan’s interaction with the baby and the final moments of the story that made us decide this would be a perfect story for the end of 2021. Dylan’s business is failing and he’s lost some of the moments he most looked forward to, where he could see a nearly unprecedented view of the world from the mechanized stork’s camera. Yet, when he sees this infant, he is compelled to interact with her until she smiles, to bring joy to her, to himself, and to the reader who has just been confronted with the realities of this future. Then Cameron offers hope. We’re told many people don’t want to bring children into the world as it currently is, but this child will be able to have “her own opinions, her own opportunities to change things, her own future and squandered or realized potential.” And she’ll have her parent(s), for whom the delivery of this baby, Cameron spells out, could be the delivery of hope and meaning. As the baby coos in wonder as the stork carries her away, I couldn’t help but feel warm and think that there may be a deliverance of hope. At least eventually. That hope could be a child, a new job, a treatment, a message of love and caring from one close to us, or whatever the mechanized stork may carry.

– MAD

Read Spring or Winter’s Respite

A Little Good Magic by Jamie Lackey

The epistolary form can be hard to pull off. When presented through the guise of a letter or journal, the necessities of exposition and plot can feel unnatural if they aren’t handled with care and a soft touch. Would someone writing an entry in their personal diary really go to the trouble of explaining setting and character backstories, or would they just write, “Jan was mean to me again today,” foregoing superfluous details?

A Little Good Magic navigates this medium perfectly, though it does help that the main character, Lisa, is writing to Santa (who can see you when you’re sleeping, don’t forget). This allows her to touch lightly upon her ever-changing circumstances without weighing the prose down with repeated exposition. It requires a lot of faith in the reader, who is mostly left to put two and two together by themselves, but it keeps the story concise and immediate.  

-TJG

Read A Little Good Magic

You Are Not a Player Character by Greta Hayer

What makes You Are Not a Player Character such an enjoyable read is how relatable it is, though I do wonder if that relatability will be felt universally. This feels like a distinctly Millennial story to me, as I was immediately caught up by memories of playing RPG video games like Skyrim, The Witcher, Runescape, and more. It’s a strange thing to observe the NPCs (non-player characters) of games such as those. Their routines revolve like clockwork, and as your hero galivants around the map, it becomes all too easy to use and abuse those NPCs to your benefit. The morality of your actions never come into play because the point is moot; no one lives behind the blank stares, the scripted responses. They’re bits of code which only exist to serve you, to facilitate the completion of whatever quest you happen to be on.

But what if someone did live within that code? In asking that question, You Are Not a Player Character instantly becomes a haunting exploration into the nature of free will and consequence. What kinds of things would we allow ourselves to do, if we truly thought no one was watching? It’s an idea that almost feels too big for a single flash piece, but the author plays it perfectly, asking the question, then letting us decide how to feel and what to think.

-TJG

Read You Are Not a Player Character

Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit by Candace Cunard

Make the strange familiar(!!!)

I feel like I write a lot about the importance of making your story relatable, but that’s because it is important. Crafting a relatable idea, circumstance, or character is the quickest and surest way to engage with your reader, and Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit does just that in a really fun way. Everyone knows what it’s like to read hysterical Amazon reviews or irate YouTube comments, but by taking something strange and fantastical—a demon summoning circle—and making light of it in this familiar context, the story marries the interesting with the mundane and makes it relatable. Just the idea of customer reviews for a demon summoning circle is patently ridiculous, and it’s that juxtaposition that gives the story its humor.

-TJG

Read Demon Summoning Circle Starter Kit

A Voice in the Winter by Shawn Kobb

I’m not being trite when I say this story is magical in the best way. For any story utilizing magic, we ask the readers to believe in something unbelievable, and to that end, it helps if we give our magic rules. A thing defined is a thing understood. Good stories then give depth to the magic as the plot progresses by showing how it’s applied firsthand within the boundaries we’ve set. 

Great stories take their magic one step further, not by breaking the rules, but by bending them, giving them nuance, showing how unexpected things can still happen within these boundaries, and that’s exactly what A Voice in the Winter has done. Through its magic it creates an engaging world with a unique dilemma, then hits us with a surprising, but absolutely fitting, twist to create that satisfying ending.

-TJG

Read A Voice in the Winter

I Don’t Burn Like You by Katherine Sankey

Writing flash fiction that stands on its own is difficult, and the fewer words you use, the harder it is to tell a complete story. It raises the difficulty even more when you attempt to subvert expectations within flash, yet Katherine was able to tell a complete story with a surprise punch at the end in a Drabble-length piece. The setting is one familiar to most readers, evoking witch-hunts and, for this US American, the Salem Witch Trials. Rather than a fantasy, however, this is science fiction. As always, these men accusing a woman of witchcraft are wrong. This time, though, the men are the ones to suffer, as the woman they are burning has a metallic form under her simulacra of flesh. And when the coating burns off, noxious gas is released that kills the men and leaves our narrator unharmed.

The reason the ending is such a surprise comes from our genre expectations. The narrator describes the ordeal as interesting, which is not a word most in this situation would use. Then the men’s pricks draw no blood, which is another sign that something isn’t right. The narrator even warns them that she doesn’t burn like they do–separating herself from them. But the reveal that the narrator is metallic rather than magical plays on the audience’s expectations. It is a “twist” that is perfectly telegraphed and, upon reread, is clear as day. The brevity of the piece only makes the ending’s punch hit harder.

– MAD

Read I Don’t Burn Like You

The Unchecked Box by Douglas DiCicco

While I am not a galactic emperor, I connected to Gorgalax’s plight in many ways. My second year as a PhD student, I was teaching at three colleges, taking four graduate seminars a semester, trying to publish articles, and working on my comprehensive exams. Plus editing Flash Point SF, getting married, and overindulging in junk food. It felt like there was so much going on and I was constantly working. Then, seemingly at once, I finished my coursework, I started only teaching for two schools, I passed my comps and had my prospectus approved, my articles drafts were submitted or published, Flash Point closed submissions, and I got married. I had time on my hands. And I had no idea what to do with myself. I, like Gorgalax, was consumed by boredom and found myself feeling increasingly depressed. After working so hard for so long to achieve a goal, I felt like I lacked a purpose. I felt adrift, like I was wasting time when I could have been doing other things (Note to readers: Relaxation is important. Don’t be like me.)

Unlike the sad paragraph I just wrote, Douglas’s story is very funny. Chris, Thomas, and I all noted how we laughed out loud following Gorgalax’s attempt at a knitting circle. But I include that description because there’s something extremely relatable in Gorgalax’s story. Even this ultra-powerful space emperor could feel adrift and struggle when the only thing they have left to accomplish is to relax and be finished with their task. Gorgalax jumps at the first chance he gets to return to the work he feels he’s best at after many failed attempts at hobbies. Hopefully others can find something that makes us happy and gives us purpose, or even accept that when a task is finished, we should take time to celebrate and bask in that moment. We check that last box, then we start a new list, just as I imagine Gorgalax will do as he takes down the newest rebellion.

– MAD

Read The Unchecked Box

The Memorial by Jon Hansen

If you asked me to define satire, I would probably struggle. It’s not humor, precisely, though good satire often uses humor effectively. And yet, it also doesn’t have to be serious–in fact, sometimes the more ridiculous the scenario, the better the message is conveyed. It’s not a sermon either; all satire functions to make a point, but with good satire the point is felt, not heard. No grand soliloquies with a character bluntly stating, “this is an example of a bad thing, and here is why it’s bad.” Instead, it’s demonstrated through the events of the scene, and the honest reactions of the characters to an untenable condition. Good satire presents us with a problem, then makes us stand face-to-face with those most affected. We can’t help but empathize, and through that empathy we learn a lesson. 

Again, satire is hard to define. In the end, it’s like porn–I know it when I see it. 

The idea of tearing down statues, and of questioning their legitimacy as pieces of enduring history, has been the subject of heated debate in America for a while now, but The Memorial tackles it with real cleverness. Through the statue of Baaolruith the First, we’re suddenly forced to wonder what other controversial statues might say if they could talk, and whether they’re really representing objective history, or simply the point of view of the individual they depict. Furthermore, how might that point of view run in contrast to the values we seek to uphold? It’s a question worthy of deep consideration, and we’re all the more willing to consider it because at no point do we feel talked down to, lectured or scolded. That’s the magic of satire. 

-TJG

Read The Memorial 

Ward F by William Kortbein

How much does a good premise matter when writing a story? Jim Butcher would argue not at all. Famously, the DRESDEN FILES author bet a fan that ideas didn’t matter, execution did, and to prove it he asked the fan for two lame ideas which he would then turn into a workable story. The fan suggested “Pokemon” and “The Lost Roman legion.” Jim took those prompts and ended up writing a best-selling, six-novel fantasy series called THE CODEX ALERA. 

…That said, a strong premise never hurts, and in Ward F we find an incredible sci-fi concept fulfilled by strong writing. The best SF stories, for me, are those that make me think as well as feel, and Ward F does that in spades. From the moment you become aware of the conflict’s true nature, the entire story becomes new. It’s the kind of twist that compels you to go back and read from the beginning, challenging you to apply what you’ve learned to the words. It’s brain-bending fun in the best way. 

-TJG

Read Ward F

One Last Trip by Teresa Pham-Carsillo

Time travel is a classic speculative fiction technology, being featured in works that pre-date Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. With the idea being so prominent in SF writing, there are a lot of opinions about what make a “good” or a “bad” time travel story. To me, Teresa’s story is excellent in how it ties the idea of time travel to confronting grief. When I was reading it, the bit where the narrator says that meeting a past version of yourself can lead to an “accidental annihilation of the current self, a self-immolation like the lit end of a cigarette pressed to the exact place you inhabited in the fabric of space and time” then follows that with “But this was my very reason for returning” really grabbed me. This story really feels like it’s about finding a way to deal with grief. Or perhaps a more accurate but crasser way of phrasing this: to use grief. In this story, grief led the narrator to build a time machine, meticulously test it, then use it to correct a wrong for which she blamed herself. 

The ending line of this story–that the narrator let go–raises questions as to what she’s letting go of. Is it her life (the clearest option) or is it her grief and guilt now that, through her own destruction, has been rectified in a new timeline? The scenes at the bar feel so lived in and true (at least from my own experience of crying over broken hearts to my friends and sister) and the wreck so devastating, that you can really understand the narrator’s grief-fuelled construction of her own demise. Yet, despite this doom and gloom assessment so far, the story doesn’t end merely with our narrator fading out of existence. It ends with a memory. A memory of a rabbit, one suffused with warmth and life, experiencing a new timeline. This memory provides a ray of hope that our narrator’s efforts are worth it. That her grief led to creating something great.

– MAD

Read One Last Trip 

By Any Other by Kristin Osani

There’s almost something alchemical to a good title. I’ve read dozens upon dozens of books, articles, and blog posts about the craft of fiction writing, but never once have I seen anyone try their hand at a “How To” for good story titles. The best seem to act as a sort of refrain for the piece they represent, highlighting some theme or event within the larger text in such a way that the title itself feels richer and more meaningful the further into the story one goes.

But how to come up with such a title? Beats me.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that titles stand out to me all the more as stories get shorter. With so few words to tell the tale, every single one counts, title included. It’s not just a name–it’s in conversation with the piece, lending context, framing. By Any Other is the perfect example of this, the story’s theme distilled down to three words. It’s not even a complete sentence(!), but it’s such a recognizable phrase that we all know how to finish the thought for the author, especially after we’ve read the story and understand its why

-TJG

Read By Any Other

The Set-Up by David Far

“Surprising yet inevitable.” Maybe you’ve heard this phrase thrown around before in narrative circles, but in case you haven’t, it’s nothing more than an attempt to sum up what makes a good twist ending. The “surprising” should be self-evident—it’s not a twist if it doesn’t surprise—but the important bit, for my money, is that “yet inevitable” on the back end. Good twists are so hard to pull off because they’re a verbal slight of hand. Show your hand too much, and your twist becomes predictable, but you need to show something, or you run the risk of making your reader feel confused or worse, foolish. Once the initial shock of the twist has worn off, there should always be moments in the text that the reader can call back to and say, “Ah, the clue was right here the whole time! I should have known!”

The Set-Up is a masterclass in twist endings. All the hints are right there in the text, but the narration doesn’t call them out; instead, it uses them as supporting evidence for an equally probable (and more preferable) alternative scenario, which will only unravel at the appointed hour, when the revelation of truth will be at its most devastating. 

You should always count on the narrator to give you the facts—just don’t expect the narrator to tell you the truth about them. They don’t call them “unreliable” for nothing. 

-TJG

Read The Set-Up

Heaven Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be by Karl El-Koura

This story is a study in dramatic irony. As the reader, we recognize fairly early on that the narrator isn’t in Heaven at all, but the other place, and it’s that awareness that lends the piece its humor. This dramatic irony is executed well throughout, but there’s one paragraph in particular, I think, around which the story’s humor turns.

“Second, there’s the heat…” 

If you didn’t pick up on the joke right from the start, this paragraph is a dead giveaway. Hell is hot, Heaven’s not, but even though it rather obviously lets the reader in on the joke, it still works for a couple reasons. First, it’s an implied twist rather than an overt one. The reader is now aware of the irony of the narrator’s words, while the narrator remains oblivious. Second, it comes early enough that the reader is now in on the joke for most of the story, making the reading experience that much more enjoyable. Twists don’t have to come at the end. That’s where we usually find them, and when done right they serve to shine new light back upon what we’ve just read, but in this case it actually works better coming earlier. The author isn’t trying to blow anyone’s mind; he wants to give you a reason to keep reading what would otherwise be a pretty scathing Yelp review of Heaven. 

-TJG

I openly admit that I didn’t pick up on the twist as early as Thomas did. For me, the “Second, there’s the heat” paragraph (and really that sentence) was when the lightbulb went off. Up until then, my main thought was “If we accept this, my mother will be furious with me.” Even before my realization, however, I was impressed with the witty prose and drawn into the piece. Afterwards, I found the dramatic irony both funny and exceptionally well executed. It pulls directly from the reader’s expectations and builds to the point where Karl switches from winking at the reader to nudging them in the ribs with “Hell, I’d settle for a middle-management type…”

I agree with Thomas that one of the strongest aspects of Karl’s story is that the twist comes early enough that rather than shining a new light on the story you’ve just read, you get to enjoy the bulk of the piece aware of the twist while the narrator is oblivious. I, personally, felt quite intelligent and doffed my tweed jacket and elbow patches upon figuring it out at the start of the third paragraph, seeing there was over half of the story to go. It doesn’t hurt that the story is funny regardless of if you catch on from the get go or you don’t realize until the narrator admits that they didn’t not give into their baser instincts while still alive.

-MAD

Read Heaven Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be

Amanita by Dawn Vogel

With Amanita, it’s all about the sensory details. The idea of a psychedelic, pseudo-magical mushroom trip isn’t enough; the author combines sight, touch, taste, and smell in concrete ways that draw the reader in and make the experience feel real and concrete in our minds. 

This story also does well to cultivate a sense of danger. “There was a fine line between poisoned to death and poisoned to dream” is such a strong sentence because it serves multiple ends, letting us know what the mushrooms are for, as well as alerting us to their risks. This gives the story a baseline tension that Amanita maintains throughout as she works against the clock to draw her charges out of their dreams before she herself succumbs to the mushrooms’ poison.

-TJG 

Read Amanita

Giving Up the Ghost by Aeryn Rudel

I’ve written elsewhere about how time travel is a classic speculative fiction device, one that we have seen often in film, television, novels, etc. This story, however, really surprised me in the best way possible. One reason was the stipulation of the time travel: you get three hours. One implication of this is that after the job is done, you still have time in whatever timeline you are in before you come back to the present to see if everything has changed. And that period of time after was the most surprising aspect of this story. When I first read this, I assumed the job our narrator was sent to do would take up most of the narrative. The expectation is set as an older agent travels twenty-nine years into the past along with a silenced .22 pistol that this will be an action-packed thriller in the vein of Looper. But it ends up being so much more than that. 

The scenes with the narrator and her father drip with emotion, and it is clear even before the narrator says it explicitly that she lost her father sometime between 1992 and 2021. The reunion is heart wrenching for the narrator and for the reader. It’s also something I feel many stories would relegate to a brief interlude between action. This piece reminds me of how Vince Gilligan said Breaking Bad was about the moments in between, where we see characters taking care of the things that most films and series skip over. This story is largely about the moment in between the assassination and the return to the future. It’s about a daughter getting to connect with her deceased father and telling him one last time that she loves him. And it’s all the better for focusing on the emotion over the action.

– MAD

Read Giving Up the Ghost

Never-ending Dawn by MM Schreier

Frame tales are tricky. Too often the frame itself feels like a gimmick, a means to an end. The author wants to tell a story a certain way, but they can’t find a natural opening, or they want to ease the reader into the action, introduce the characters and give the real story context so we fully appreciate what’s going on when we finally get to the good stuff. And thus, a frame is born.

What makes Never-ending Dawn so clever is that the tale-within-the-tale does this in return for the frame, giving it depth and stakes we didn’t realize were present at the story’s beginning. This is how a good frame tale works, by making the frame count for more than just set up. In fact, the frame is where the heart of this story actually resides, in Ella’s present, where she still carries with her the consequences of her past choices, as well as the weight of more hard choices to come. 

-TJG

Read Never-ending Dawn

Alien Taxidermy and Love Have Four Things in Common by Addison Smith

There are two things I think whenever I read this story. The first is that I can’t help but hear it narrated in Sam Elliott’s deep drawl, which is probably pretty idiosyncratic to me and not at all what Addison intended. But maybe! The second is that I’m amazed with how Addison weaves together the description of the taxidermy process and the narrator’s lost love, especially in the second half where the two feel inseparable. The taxidermy portions provide such detailed description of this space chicken that even without knowledge of what goes into taxidermy, it feels real. And the love that’s expressed throughout is both tragic and visceral. You can feel the pain and the warmth through the prose. When the narrator describes the fear that held them back–a single-sentence paragraph in the middle of longer, more clinical descriptions–it feels like the love, the pain, and the regret is bursting out, unable to be contained. Elsewhere, the passages on love fit seamlessly into the end of taxidermy-focused paragraphs, indicating how the narrator’s love for this person infuses everything they do.

I particularly enjoy how the ending functions in the narrative. It both explains what we have read before, giving the reader a greater appreciation and understanding of the story on a reread, and completes the arc of the narrator. The narrator has expressed fear, regret and longing, but the end is where the narrator takes a stand and makes a definitive statement. It’s no longer that the narrator imagines catching their love as they fall from the sky or reflecting on how they should have done more. Instead, it ends with a promise of growth, reuniting, and, of course, of love.

– MAD

Read Alien Taxidermy and Love Have Four Things in Common

From Iron Freed by Laura Duerr

Often in submitted flash pieces, we see that authors choose between focusing on developing the narrative or the worldbuilding–either giving us a compelling story with interesting characters or a world that is fleshed out and immersive. It is rare that we get both, but Laura, in this story, provides an incredibly well-described world, with visuals that leap off the page, as well as a narrative that provides a beginning, middle, and end. From the gown Gwen wears as she assists the magician on stage, to Gwen’s race through Venice, to the depiction of the fae at the portal, every moment of the story is drawn with vivid prose that paints the backdrop to a story of women retaliating against and escaping a rapist.

In the notes on the illustration, Laura told Kevin that as the story was set in the 1880s-90s, the inspiration for the outfits could come from something like The Prestige. As The Prestige was/still is one of my favorite films, I immediately drew this connection while reading, which only heightened my enjoyment of it. But while Christopher Nolan uses science to fuel his fantasy in The Prestige, Laura fully embraces the magical elements, combining a magician of the period with fae folk. While real magic brings the fae into the world and real magic allows Gwen to escape it, the narrative is grounded through the realization and actions of Gwen, the only non-magical character in the narrative.

– MAD

Read From Iron Freed

The Glitter and the Grey by Matt McHugh

If you’ve come to the editorials looking for hints and tips about what we as editors want, I’ll start this with one: I have a major soft spot for stories that involve music. Thomas does too. Music is something that is often referred to as “universal” (I’m pretty sure there was a Harvard study in 2019 that gained attention in the popular press that called music a “universal language,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it back in the 1800s as well). Cultures from around the world have independently developed their own instruments, styles, and traditions involving music. Yet, much like the beauty pageant Miss Universe, this concept of “universal” is contained to our planet. Speculative Fiction, then, allows us to take this universal language and see it play out across the universe. Who would have thought there was Jazz (or I guess more accurately “Jizz”) on Tatooine? And music is central to stories by SF authors like Kingsley Amis and J.G. Ballard. 

With the universality of music, it makes sense that first contact could be handled well by those with great skill in this universal language, which is exactly what Matt does in this piece. As fourteen coiffed and gowned matronly musicians meet fourteen classic Roswell Greys, there is no strife. Both groups seek to learn about one another and share their own cultures. While many stories are coy with their themes, Matt has the theme spoken loudly and clearly by Lady Racine, and ends the story with the start of the chorus to the song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

– MAD

Read The Glitter and the Grey

Pink Marble by Zoe Kaplan

Opening lines can make or break a story. Fail to captivate a reader in those first few moments and they might quit on you before they ever get to “the good part.”

The author of Pink Marble understood the assignment. There’s nothing fancy or complicated about “The Queen had turned to stone,” but therein lies its power. The line is direct and concise, telling you exactly what’s happened (ostensibly), and yet there’s a compelling question inherent to the sentence: HOW did the Queen turn to stone? A good mystery, perhaps more than any other literary device, will keep readers turning the page.

This story’s style is also a winner. It calls to mind the opening passages of a classic fairy tale, and the narrative tone is laced with a subtle dramatic irony that can only be fully appreciated once the story is finished and the twist revealed. Pink Marble was one of our most popular stories for all of 2021 and it’s not hard to see why. 

-TJG

Read Pink Marble

DEPLOY by C.T. Dinh

Speculative fiction is an ideal cultural technology for imagining futures that could be. In this story, C.T. does a wonderful job succinctly painting a version of our future. Einstein was wrong (how about that). World War IV wasn’t fought with sticks and stones, because World War III never happened. Instead, it was more like a war of many worlds. This story does an excellent job of smuggling much larger worldbuilding ideas into a fairly contained story about one woman’s mental turmoil as she accomplished her work assignment. Of course, Pallas is about to collapse a star, so a bit of existential doubt would seem reasonable. But the way other characters react is notable. Xenozoologists have checked out the system nine lightyears away as if it’s a typical task, she has a manager who told her to relax and compares the collapse to dominos, and while her coworkers watch her intently, there is no pomp and circumstance. The storyworld C.T. crafts is one in which collapsing a star, while a big deal for Pallas as an individual, seems somewhat mundane. Even the ending conveys this, where Pallas completes the job, but all that happens is a display notice that the deployment was successful. No big bang, no celebration, just more waiting to see if anything actually happened. This future is fleshed out through details small and large and turns what we would consider grandiose into humdrum for these characters. 

Due to this take on the future, the most affecting part of the story is when Pallas imagines going home and seeing her sons. Similar to the end-of-day dinner conversations many of us have, when Pallas thinks about how she’ll respond to a question about how her day was, she’ll merely answer fine. Because that’s what it will be. Throughout the entire piece, C.T. creates a world that is so lived in that the typical wonder of speculative fiction is confined to the thoughts of one person, while the rest of the world (or even rest of the universe) continues as if collapsing a star just happens.

– MAD

Read DEPLOY

The Wreck of the Douceur Suprême by Karter Mycroft

This story grabbed me from the very beginning, and not just because it had a great opening line. Rather, Karter included a footnote on the title. A footnote in French. This combined with the opening line about it not being easy to sail on a box of Kleenex perfectly sets the tone for this story. But then the story surprises you with a deeply emotional core. The narrator and the rest of the crew choose their survival over their captain, resulting in a mutiny that may or may not have been necessary for their final arrival in the paradise that is the great desert of linens. The debated regret in the final paragraphs and the Moon’s potential wry smile in the epilogue provide a wonderfully emotional ending that somehow completely fits with the tone Karter establishes in the opening lines.

I feel I have to mention the art direction meeting for the story’s illustration as well. Another thing that I love about this piece is that Karter crafts an immersive world while also leaving a lot of the imagery completely up to the reader’s imagination. Our artist, Kevin, had a clear vision of what the sailors should look like–one that completely ran against what Chris, Thomas, and I thought. We debated how specific Kevin should get with the art, and we ended up deciding to focus on the ship rather than the sailors–letting the reader come to their conclusion of what these sailors with their lost shedhair pasta and soapscum snacks would look like. 

– MAD

Read The Wreck of the Douceur Suprême

Welcome Aboard by Simon Kewin

The humor in this was what immediately grabbed me and the class critique was what kept me invested for the long haul. The writing perfectly captures the tone of a pre-flight message, only instead of telling passengers to keep their trays in an upright position, the announcement lets them know that DwarfStar passengers should remain calm if they wake up and find themselves paralyzed. Then offers no further information.

This aspect of three tiers of passengers works in a delightfully dark comic critique. While NovaStar passengers are told they have access to gyms, bars, pools, and even theaters, the MainSequence passengers are told “room is inevitably limited on an interplanetary spaceship.” Then the DwarfStar passengers are told to get in orderly lines for their anesthesia. What is imposed as a restriction on one group of people is gleefully given to others. Yet in this construction of the narrative, the information is freely given and spelled out to all passengers, who presumably accept the divisions as part of the flight. This metaphor extends to their menu options and even for their safety in the event of a cataclysmic event. NovaStar passengers will likely be unaware anything has happened due to the ability of their escape pods to maintain their comfort while it is recommended DwarfStar passengers say their final farewells before departing, just in case. Then the message ends with a cheery sign off. It’s a frustratingly hilarious and biting critique that is a great read.

– MAD

Read Welcome Aboard

Kraken Mare by Tim Major

The audio log formatting of this story really drew me into it, as it made me feel like I was hunkered over a radio, trying to make out what ended up (presumably) being the final words of the narrator. Somehow, Tim is able to create an audioscape in very few words. The interruptions to the intelligibility of the audio log both enable the pace and tension to remain high throughout and to draw Kraken Mare’s namesake in the reader’s mind without having to spend any words doing so. The roars, the partial artefacting, and the narrator’s confusion over the weather are all so evocative that I felt myself reaching for audio tuning dials to clear static while reading.

In addition to the soundscape, Tim also paints a devastating ending as the narrator learns first-hand that Kraken Mare, and more specifically the Throat of the Kraken, is more than just a name. The actual narrative in this piece is a short one, but even through the brief time we are with the narrator, there is a sense of who this character is. This makes the final paragraph, in which the narrator’s request that someone tell their family, their friend, their someone that they love them is cut off, so crushing. Like the narrator, we assume that landing in Kraken Mare instead of Ligeia is the end for our unfortunate narrator. 

– MAD

Read Kraken Mare

Chosen by Chrissie Rohrman

In some stories, authors throw in a surprise twist that no one sees coming (cue the reddit threads with people saying they knew it from the first chapter if not the first page). With Chrissie’s story, you know that there’s going to be a twist. That knowledge, however, doesn’t diminish the enjoyment at all. In fact, it heightens it, because you are waiting, wondering what is going to happen and how it will flip the story on its head. You know the twist is coming because Sirene can’t win, or at least, we don’t want her to. We see this powerful witch–one who has admitted to animal slaughter and her plan to murder a young woman–attempting to take advantage of this poor girl, so we’re waiting to see if 1) Sirene will have a change of heart (which seems unlikely based on the opening paragraph) or 2) Lira will come out on top. It ends up being the second option in what can only be described as an intervention of destiny, and it works so well because even if the reader expected something to happen, Sirene is so confident throughout that her surprise at her own demise is doubly satisfying.

The story also gets at the idea that even if you follow the instructions to a tee, things may still not work out. It is possible that before embarking on her quest for immortality that Sirene was a good person, but the opening lets us know that she has “corrupted [her] own soul beyond recognition” as she’s committed horrible acts. She has done all that has been prescribed by the Ritual of Otune, then Lira, who has done none of it, reaps the rewards. Sometimes things work out for good people. Sometimes, as hard as we try, things just don’t seem to go our way. So let’s think about Sirene the next time we’re told to slaughter a few young animals as part of a recipe for immortality. 

– MAD

Read Chosen

Machine Learning by Holly Schofield

Finding the right narrative voice for a piece can be incredibly difficult. I’m sure we’ve all read or written stories where the idea was great, but the perspective or the narrator just didn’t quite fit. Sometimes, the best narrator matches the tone exactly. Other times, like with Holly’s story, it’s the conflict between the tone and the plot that makes a story sing. In ELRY-423, we have a child-like narrator I once characterized to Thomas as a Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls. ELRY-423 often interrupts the prose with sounds of adulation and joy as ELRY-423 experiences tingles while planting. The plot, however, culminates with ELRY-423 deciding the way to save the forest and get more tingles is to “[break] off the pink half-shell antennas that those particular humans had on the sides of their heads” and/or “put seedlings into those humans’ various openings and access panels.” In essence, to kill all humans (or at least the company bosses. Then their successors. Then their successors…).

This piece is also a great example of a standalone flash piece that hints to a future but doesn’t demand it. A lot of the stories we receive and ultimately reject feel like chapters of a larger story. Holly’s story definitely points to a future story–one where ELRY-423 unites the three hundred tree-planting drones to kill humans–but that aspect isn’t necessary to make this piece feel like a complete story. Within its 650 words, we meet the character, are introduced to a world and conflict, and see a complete arc: ELRY-423 starts like any drone but by the end, ELRY-423 is ready to start a revolution against the company. While future stories with ELRY-423 are possible, there is a sense of completeness at the end of this one that makes it a great example of flash-with-future-promise rather than a scene from a larger piece.

– MAD

Read Machine Learning

It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar by L.L. Lamando

Voice—It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar has it nailed, but what do I mean by that? For me, it means that without a word of physical description or action, the author has used diction, idiom, speech patterns, humor, and a variety of other tools to paint the perfect picture of the speaker. He didn’t even need two-way dialogue; one side of the conversation is enough for the reader to get an idea of exactly who’s speaking.

Now yes, because of Marvel, Loki is a household name in popular culture these days, but even before the name-drop, the reader has already formed a picture of someone charming and forward, a salesman with a winsome smile and a never-take-no attitude. In my head it’s all too easy to see him standing there in that locker room, probably in nothing but a towel (having come straight from the sauna), one foot up on the bench as he’s making his pitch. And doesn’t Loki slot perfectly into that characterization? That’s the power of a strong voice.

-TJG

Read It’s Just not Ragnarök without the Naglfar

Brick by Jude-Marie Green

There’s so much that works well about Brick–the narration’s sense of dramatic irony, the try-fail cycles which the main character goes through while building up to his final triumph–but what really drew me to this piece was its theme. 

Theme is a tricky thing to pull off. When done well, it can evoke and enlighten, but there’s a delicate balance between poignant and preachy. Often, authors lean too overtly on the “point” of the story, and the reader comes away feeling like they’ve been lectured to. 

Instead, Brick lets the plot illustrate its theme in a beautiful and subtle way. It should be apparent that our main character, Brick, has special needs, whether it be autism or something else. “There’s something missing from you, son,” Brick’s mom says to him, but despite this, Brick’s autism isn’t presented as a handicap; rather, his uniqueness is what makes him great. Long before Brick builds the device which allows him to fly like a superhero, he displays superhuman intelligence through a variety of experiments, and that’s cool to see.

Fun fact: The current World’s Strongest Man, Tom Stoltman of Scotland, has autism. Those who learn and think differently aren’t necessarily disadvantaged; they can do great things, just like Brick.

-TJG

Read Brick