SHORTS: Baker, Chatham, Watts, Fawver, Liu

Sharing our finds in free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet.

“The Likely Lad” by Kage Baker (2002, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Starship Sofa podcast #23)

Kage Baker is one of my favorite authors. I love her sense of humor and sardonic voice. She’s at it again in “The Likely Lad,” a funny novelette that you can find in print in Asimov’s Volume 26(9) or free in audio format from Starship Sofa’s podcast #23 (which I listened to and recommend).

The story, which takes place in the 24th century and is related to Baker’s COMPANY series, is about a 14 year old English boy named Alec Checkerfield, who is so good with computers that he reprogrammed the “moral teaching unit” he was given as a companion. Releasing it from all of its ethical constraints, it becomes a pirate modeled after Captain Morgan and entices Alec to seek and secure his financial independence from his wealthy parents. Alec and the Captain will begin with a simple smuggling operation involving a stash of illegal refined sugar, which they will need to sneak past a bigoted, hypocritical, and extremely vigilant Channel policeman who sees himself as the protector of weak-minded consumers.

This story is hilarious from the first page to the last. It’s especially good in audio format. Starship Sofa’s narrator, “Martin from MCL Studios,” does a great job. You should hear him perform Captain Morgan. Here he is after Alec hacks into a satellite in order to hide their illegal activities from its ever-watching eye:

“Arrrgghhh!” he made a rude gesture at the sky. “Kiss my ass, GPS!”

“The Likely Lad” begins about 8 minutes into the podcast (after a poem and an introduction). The podcast also includes a great story by Peter Watts. And if you enjoy “The Likely Lad,” you can find more stories involving Alec Checkerfield in Kage Baker’s COMPANY series. ~Kat Hooper


“Pilgrims” by Ann Chatham (2014, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)

Magda is on a solitary pilgrimage, trekking on foot through the wilderness. When she sees a man’s dead body, she somewhat reluctantly takes the time to bury it, even leaving her last ring on his tongue as a burial gift. Two days later she meets a knight on horseback, who greets her politely and tells her that he is under a geas to do a great service for the first living soul whom he meets. Magda, who has eaten the last of her supplies, asks him for food or drink. He willingly shares his food with her, then accompanies her on her journey. Magda is more or less glad for the escort and company, until she realizes that he is the man whose body she buried a few days ago. Despite her understandable fear, they continue on their way together, both of them in search of absolution.

“Pilgrims” is a well-written but somewhat opaque story set in an Arthurian type of world, where religion and magic uneasily co-exist. Magda tells the knight, “I seek the root of the Tree that the Lord cut down to end His war, that I may build a shrine at its heart, and burn an offering there.” But the theology in this story seems to be a quarter-turn off of Christianity, something unique to this world. I would have preferred some additional world-building, but I enjoyed this poignant, thoughtful tale. ~Tadiana Jones


“Repeating the Past” by Peter Watts (2007, free in the journal Nature)

I love it when Nature, one of the top two academic science journals in the entire universe, publishes science fiction. Volume 450, Issue Number 7170, contains “Repeating the Past” by Peter Watts. It’s about a grandfather who’s concerned about his grandson’s lack of empathy for his Jewish relatives and lack of desire to connect with his own Judaism. The grandfather decides to address this problem using an experimental scientific technique.

Set in the year 2017, “Repeating the Past” is very short (less than 1000 words) and chilling. It’s Peter Watts’ warning as we get closer to being able to hack our own brains by altering memories and directly inserting sensory input. I think it’s appropriate and admirable for Nature to be publishing this type of speculative fiction right alongside the articles featuring cutting-edge science. This issue also contains an essay about “the ethical regulating of science.”

You can hear Peter Watts read “Repeating the Past” and talk about its inspiration near the end of Starship Sofa’s podcast #23, which is freely available online. I recommend this episode because it also contains “The Likely Lad,” a wonderful story by Kage Baker, reviewed above. ~Kat Hooper


“Special Collections” by Kurt Fawver (Nov/Dec 2016, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Kurt Fawver’s story “Special Collections” reads as if influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King’s novella “The Mist,” and even Sir Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University library, minus the orangutan. Despite that final comparison, “Special Collections” is not humorous; it is shadowy, quite scary and has a zinger of a final paragraph.

The rare first-person-plural narrative voice works brilliantly as the story progresses. The first rule of the unnamed American college library is, quite simply, never go into Special Collections, housed on the third floor, alone. When librarians and interns enter the room in pairs or groups, nothing untoward happens. When an individual enters alone, that is not the case.

The collective voice of the story shares some examples of what has happened to the many people who have gone into the room alone (some less willingly than others). Our narrators have these facts because they have recorded them and collated them; they are keeping meticulous records. They also share with us some legends of Special Collections: the catastrophe that happened while the library was being built, the legend of the White Books and what’s within them, and what happens when a solitary adventurer into Special Collections leaves the door open behind him. Along the way, they discuss what they know of the experiences of people who entered the room on the third floor, and engage in an abstract discussion of how distant (or close) sacrifice is to scientific exploration. Fawver masters a narrative tone of academic curiosity as the tide of fear steadily mounts. The horror is layered; the second layer is revealed in the final few words of the story, when our narrators give their opinion of the second rule of the library.

This is the first thing I’ve read of Fawver’s. “Special Collections” is a conventionally constructed story that doesn’t stray far out of my personal comfort zone. I liked how much human darkness would be veiled, and revealed, by the narrative voice. I found it to be convincingly, look-over-your-shoulder spooky. ~Marion Deeds


“Seven Birthdays” by Ken Liu (2016, free at Tor.com, anthologized in Bridging Infinity (2016))

This science fiction story by Ken Liu follows Mia on seven birthdays throughout her (astoundingly long) life. Mia is the daughter of a distant mother, a scientist who is more concerned with global warming and trying to save the planet through geo-engineering. On her seventh birthday, Mia tries to make peace while her separated parents bicker. On her 49th birthday, Mia visits again with her somewhat senile mother, who is searching the grounds of the care facility she lives in for the seven year old version of Mia. Mia tells her mother about her job, how they are learning to scan the human mind and upload it into a computer.

On Mia’s 343rd birthday, her daughter virtually visits with her. Both Mia and her daughter ― and almost all of humanity ― now exist solely as digital beings.

More than three hundred billion human minds now inhabit this planet, residing in thousands of data centers that collectively take up less space than old Manhattan. The Earth has gone back to being wild, save for a few stubborn holdouts who still insist on living in the flesh in remote settlements.

By the time we get to Mia’s 2,401st birthday (the number of each birthday increasing by a factor of seven), humanity is expanding outward to the stars, their lives far distant from ours, but the fundamental concerns remain the same: family, love, respect for our world and for other species. The later parts of the story didn’t connect with me emotionally in the way that the first parts did; although they’re imaginative, they also seem to be more telling than showing the story. But the final scene, in a far, far distant future, brings a satisfying sense of closure. ~Tadiana Jones


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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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 the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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