SHORTS: Hurley, Valentine, Miller, Campbell-Hicks, Warrick

There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about. 

“Elephants and Corpses” by Kameron Hurley (May 2015, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version).

Nev has the ability to jump from a dying body into a nearby dead one, as long as he’s actually touched the dead body. He keeps a cache of dead bodies on hand so he’s never stuck for something for his soul to jump into. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s some demand for body mercenaries like Nev, ranging from soldiering to a cheap party tricks to giving a grieving spouse a few more moments with their deceased loved one.

One day Nev and his assistant Tera purchase a newly dead body for his collection, and wind up with a lot of unexpected trouble from others who want the same body for their own purposes. A mixture of love and revenge impel Tera and Nev to pursue the matter further, rather than slinking away safely. This decision soon gets the two of them into a deep load of trouble, or perhaps into hot water … or maybe just deep water.

Kameron Hurley weaves in some interesting details about this world that, while they aren’t directly pertinent to the story, add depth and complexity to it. There’s Falid, a sweet miniature elephant that is the only living thing Nev really cares for, and the fact that in this society only women are allowed to own property. Although Nev has lived in a woman’s body and apparently was originally born as one, he chooses to live as a man. Additionally, there are insights regarding attachment to others, and what it really means to be alive, that give this fantasy adventure tale some unexpected depth. ~Tadiana Jones


“Small Medicine” by Genevieve Valentine (2014, free at Lightspeed, reprinted in July 2016 issue; $3.99 Kindle issue)

Seven year old Sofia is introduced to a Mori Memento robot that her family has had made to replicate her dead grandmother. “Grandmother” is programmed to act as Sofia’s real grandmother would, telling the young Sofia stories ― but when the robot tells non-parental-unapproved stories, her programming is quickly changed by Sofia’s parents. The Grandmother robot was made to comfort Grandfather, but as he gradually grows more distant from the robot, Grandmother ends up being more of a companion to Sofia.

A few years later, when Grandmother notices that Sofia’s neck is swollen, Sofia’s parents pay the hefty cost of having Sofia injected with nano medications that will permanently reside in Sofia’s body, instantly healing all injuries and curing all diseases that may threaten her, making her functionally immortal … like Grandmother. Sofia’s frustration with her nanimeds leaves her feeling acutely a loss of control over her own life, and she develops a habit of cutting herself. Each cut heals within seconds, without a scar, but Sofia morbidly wonders what it would take to overload her nanimeds. Only the Grandmother robot seems to understand her.

Genevieve Valentine stated in an interview in this Lightspeed issue: “my idea of the Moris was always less the curtailing of grief so much as a savagely indefinite suspension of it; a constant reminder you have something to grieve but without a loss to accompany it. The nanos are definitely part of a no-pain lifestyle, and one of the benefits of privilege, which Sofia encounters again and again, right down to a room that uses people’s memories as public examples of a job well done. All that privilege, still no control.”

“Small Medicine” is a bittersweet story that quietly explores pain and loss, how what we do to ease our pain might have unforeseen consequences, and how comfort may be found in unexpected places. ~Tadiana Jones


“Death of a Spaceman” by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1954, free on Gutenberg, free on Kindle, originally published in Amazing Stories)

Donegal, an aging former spaceman or “blastman,” is in the last stages of cancer. He’s dealing with his wife, who’s in denial (if not about his dying, then about how Donegal is leaving her), the noisy party going on next door, the Catholic priest that his wife wants him to see for his last confession, and most of all his thoughts. Those thoughts are more mundane than one might expect: rather than profound musings on the beauty of space, Old Donegal recalls the harshness of that life. He wants to die with his space boots on; he wants another drink of whiskey. And he wants to hear the rocket blasting off for the moon-run one more time.

Understandably for a 1950’s science fiction story, there are a few anachronistic details like cigarettes and a loudly ticking clock, but Walter M. Miller’s talent at drawing characters shines through. Not a whole lot happens; it’s a quiet, introspective, and ultimately moving tale, with a touching, slightly surprising ending that unexpectedly brought me to tears. ~Tadiana Jones


“Goosed” by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks (July 2016, free at Daily Science Fiction)

“Goosed” is a short, funny black-magic vengeance fantasy that made me chuckle.

Jayce used black magic to curse her faithless lover Ben by turning him into a goose. For one day, once a year, he returns to human form and comes back to the place where the curse took effect (Jayce’s kitchen). This is the first year, and Jayce offers Ben a chance to beg forgiveness and end the curse. Things don’t quite go that way.

Jennifer Campbell-Hick’s concrete, everyday descriptions ― the AC unit, the cooling coffee, the curtains ― set the tone for the kind of story this is, and prepare the reader for the upcoming humor. There is a twist ending, but before we get to that, there’s a scene over lunch in a pub that made me laugh out loud.

Campbell-Hicks is wise to keep the story very simple, with uncomplicated motivations for the characters. Maybe Ben’s capacity for denial is a little too high, but the story still worked as far as I was concerned. This is simply good fun, and I hope you enjoy it. ~Marion Deeds


“Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper” by Douglas F. Warrick (July 2016, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

A brilliant but despondent time traveler realizes that both time and space are mutable and that he can expand or shrink them with his time-reticulation chamber. By pressing a few keys, he shrinks himself to a miniscule size and sends himself and the chamber into the inside of Abraham Lincoln’s brain, just moments before the bullet from John Wilkes Booth will strike Lincoln behind his ear. Even though he’s actually the one killing Lincoln, he reasons that it’s not really murder under the circumstances. Then, expanding time so that those few moments before Lincoln is shot will take months of subjective time for the time traveler, he scoops out more of Lincoln’s brain matter to hollow out enough space to build himself a nice split-level studio, complete with a roomy bed loft, inside of Abraham Lincoln’s brain. The time traveler isolates himself from all other human contact in his grotesque new home, living in reasonably contented solitude until a shocking and grisly event upsets his routine and impels him to some action.

“Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper” ― the title emphasizing certain repetitive actions taken by the time traveler ― is a bizarre story with a great hook. The incongruity of the man’s high-flown philosophical musings regarding time travel, and his gruesomely practical actions (shoveling out bits of Lincoln’s brain matter and cartilage to make room for the apartment he’s building, burying things under Lincoln’s tongue), is both intriguing and disturbing. This quirky and ambiguous story isn’t very logical and leaves the reader with several unanswered questions, but as an unusual exploration of depression and one man’s conflicted feelings regarding death, it has an impact. ~Tadiana Jones


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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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3 comments

  1. I hope I’ll have some time this week to read today’s stories — you two picked some interesting ones!

  2. Marion, I read “Goosed” and really enjoyed it. Good fun! If not so much for Ben …

    Jana, these shorts are great for when I need a break from novels. I think you’d get a kick out of “Goosed” as well, and it only takes 5 minutes or so to read. :)

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