Thursday, May 30, 2024

Short Fiction Fridays: The Portal

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If you asked me a year ago, I would have told you that I didn’t much like short fiction. It was the best sort of opinion: strongly held and built predominately upon ignorance (with a pinch of laziness thrown in for good measure). I just preferred my sci-fi and fantasy in multi-volume tomes, thanks. More space to build some characters and develop a world!  How did short fiction authors manage to do that in six thousand words, anyway? I just assumed they didn’t.

The last few months, however, have changed my mind with a vengeance. Sci-fi and fantasy short fiction has proved to be an addictive, kaleidoscopic world. There are a few reasons you should come explore it with me.

  • It’s a small time commitment. This one’s for all my lazy bones out there! If you wish you read more stories, if you miss the days when you could consume Robert-Jordan-sized tomes in a week, if you want a quick dose of fantasy after a long day at work? Short fiction is your friend.
  • It’s the best way to explore emerging authors and diverse voices. Novels are financially risky endeavors, and consequently novels are often (not always) a bit conservative in their narrative philosophy, or a bit behind the times in where a genre is heading. Most sci-fi and fantasy literary journals these days, however, will have a wide range of styles that range from classic sword and sorcery fantasy to meta genre-benders. Authors will come from all over the world and both authors and stories prominently feature women, people of color, and the queer community. If you feel starved for LGBTQ+ sci-fi content or are sick of Euro-centric fantasy, short fiction is your friend.
  • It’ll make you a better writer. This is no surprise for authors or fans of short fiction. But for the uninitiated: there’s so much art and craft that goes into a good short story, especially a sci-fi or fantasy short story. My penchant for long form narrative had a grain of truth: it’s hard to build a world, a character, and a story in a handful of pages. Authors who do it well? They really know what they’re doing. Want to learn how to tell a polished, efficient story that doesn’t waste a word? Short fiction is your friend.

Short fiction can, however, be tricky to follow. There’s lots of it, from lots of different sites, specializing in lots of different genres. That’s where we come in! Every two weeks, Short Fiction Fridays here at The Fandomentals will bring you the best of recent short fiction, through both short recommendations and deeper analysis. We’ll delve through your options and bring you the best of the best.

For your weekend reading, you may want to take a look at

“The Sun from Both Sides,” by R.S.A. Garcia, Clarkesworld Magazine
For fans of chess, drones, quantum trees and love stories.

“The Convexity of Our Youth” by Kurt Fawver, Lightspeed Magazine
The story the most unsettled me this week. Basketballs will never be the same.


My spotlight, reserved for my favorite short story I’ve read in the last two weeks, goes to Debbie Urbanski’s “The Portal,” in Lightspeed Magazine. Go read it! Then we can come back and discuss.


Stories about portals are nearly always about gaining something: new knowledge, new peoples, new worlds. “The Portal” is about absence.

There had been no omens to suggest that, by going through the portal a second time, Amber would ruin the rest of her life: no bats circling the entrance nor enormous crows cawing ominously from nearby branches. Even if there had been bats and crows, I believe Amber would have gone anyway.

“The Portal” tells two stories that turn into one. First there is the story of Amber, a young woman who discovers a portal that gives her joy and then utterly ruins her life. Slipping through a doorway that appears next to her high school soccer field, Amber finds utopic contentment in the land of Mere until it is suddenly, irrevocably snatched away. A marriage and two children later she still finds herself looking for the portal, wandering off into the woods: “at this point Amber still thought, wrongly, that portals must appear when people really needed them.” Eventually Amber’s marriage to David reaches a tentative, questionable plateau. She begins taking a pill called Horiza, that makes people desire what’s in front of them (and, at high doses: erases what they remember).

“The Portal” is also the story of Amber’s author, an asexual woman with a surprised and unsupportive spouse, who begins looking for a portal, any portal, to escape the world she finds herself in. The Author begins as a commenter on Amber’s story – mentioning that she wanted Amber’s portal world to be a utopia despite being called an amateur for it – but eventually becomes part of the story herself. Her story opens with her husband desperate to “fix” her newly-discovered asexuality:

Later, over tea, my husband returns to this concept of a pill. He’s become obsessed with the idea of a single miraculous cure that could heal our problems, as if we were characters in a fantasy story. Or would it be science fiction? I suppose it depends on how the pill is made.

They try multiple solutions: an open marriage, couples therapy, and eventually: Horiza. The stories end intertwined, sharing medications and details, as both Amber and her author attempt to live in a world that fills them with dread.

“The Portal” is a dark and sad story, but it struck me as an intensely human one about absence, loss, and coping with the horror of happiness that slipped away. The Author’s first intervention into the story establishes this. She made Mere a place of perfection despite the canonical laws of Good Writing and Believability. Mere has no dark side. The only terror that comes out of it is its final, permanent loss.

There are plenty of hints that Mere could be wrong in some way, and lesser stories would have settled with that. Mere is magical, but magic is finite. Those who use theirs up are banished, never to be returned or spoken of. Food and clothing arrive unannounced at night. Quests take place for no purpose, into a seemingly abandoned world. Any of these could point to something darker lurking at the edge of the story. But it doesn’t matter: Mere is a utopia for Amber.

At first Amber found the landscape of Mere to be desolate: rocks, the occasional scraggly tree, a pond. But if you become happy in a place, as she did, it will become beautiful to you.

Amber arrives to a loving family that was waiting for her. She never wants for food or love or company. And she falls in love with Zef, as they use their magic to turn into a kaleidoscope of different versions of themselves as the world around them literally hums with magic and joy. It doesn’t matter if Mere is perfect. Amber is perfectly happy within it. The loss of it is stark, a definitive before and after in her life. She had lost the thing that had brought her joy, for a random, arbitrary reason, and Amber was unable to ever get it back. She never recovers.

As she attempts to, we begin to see Amber’s life intertwine with The Author’s. Both of them begin to pretend. Amber goes to college and meets David, whom she’ll eventually marry:

Soon Amber learned how to kiss David as if she wanted to be kissing him. It is not a waste to know how to do this. Pretending can be a bridge to feeling a certain way about people in your life.

The Author does likewise, describing when she first met her own husband in college:

When we first met in college, I saw my life as a stage upon which I tried to act like the other people I knew. It took me a long time to understand how to do it correctly.

Both also attempt to escape. Amber flees to the woods, in gold-strapped sandals and with nothing to eat, and hopes that her desperate wanting will be enough to save her, to open up a portal back to her happiness. The Author never runs, but fantasizes about it nevertheless:

If he would allow me to turn my head to the bedroom wall, I might see the hopeful suggestion of a light from some faraway place. I am aware of the problems with such a plot: that the laws of physics say we can’t step through some imagined doorway into another world; that there probably are no other worlds. But for the moment please put aside your need for realism and let me believe in this.

The stories continue to intermix. The Author acknowledges the possibility that Horiza is made up, a medication that she’s written into her own life from its origins in her story.  A joke about going to Indiana between David and Amber suddenly appear as a joke between the Author and her husband. The intertwining stories augment the sense of the story’s desperation: characters want and long for things so desperately in this story, but even the infinite power of the author to create words and worlds and people from nothing can’t quite fill in the sense of loss. It results in a beautiful, if deeply sad, story. I’m thrilled I found something so good for the first round of Short Fiction Fridays.

As a final note: I worry a bit that “The Portal” involved some medication-shaming. Some of the language surrounding Horiza reminded me of language condemning the use of antidepressants for being overly numbing or dulling. That said, I think it’s use as a parallel to portals works well enough that it doesn’t bother me too heavily. Both The Author’s and Amber’s struggles are muted by those around them, people who just want their sadness solved already. The same people who condemn the childish escapism of portals point to alternately simplistic solutions, often at the expense of Amber / The Author. So while I’m a little jumpy at the connotations, I think it works well enough in the context of the story.

Next Short Fiction Friday: Alejandra will be here to chat about “Insaan Hain, Farishte Nahin” by Arula Ratnakar and “Nice Things” by Ellen Klages.

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