SFM: Christopher, Bledsoe, McIntosh, Wallace, Brooke and Brown

Short Fiction Monday: 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.

“Brisk Money” by Adam Christopher (2014, $0.99 for Kindle, free at Tor.com)

Ray is an electromatic man — a full-metal private investigator in 1960s Los Angeles — with a functional memory which must be reset every twenty-four hours. He relies on his assistant, Ada, an artificial intelligence who lives in a bank of computers, to keep him up-to-date on jobs, assignments, and information that isn’t hard-wired into his behavioral circuits. When Ray starts seeing flashes of memories for which he has no context, he starts investigating himself, and what he discovers isn’t pretty. But then, any story operating under the conceit that this is a “lost” Raymond Chandler piece of science fiction (a genre for which Chandler notoriously had no patience) isn’t going to have a happy ending.

Adam Christopher clearly has a lot of fun with Chandler’s tropes and language, borrowing turns of phrase and an overall terseness that would feel right at home in Humphrey Bogart’s gritted teeth. Since Ray’s memories only last twenty-four hours, when experiences repeat or seem a little odd to him, the reader is fully aware that things have gone sideways even though he’s fumbling in the dark. When the reasons behind Ray’s erratic behavior are revealed, his response is both heroic and pitiable.

Christopher later modified and expanded “Brisk Money” into a 2015 novel, Made to Kill, which underwhelmed Bill (and myself). The best aspects of the novel are in this short story. ~Jana Nyman


“Shall We Gather” by Alex Bledsoe (2013, $0.99 for Kindle, free at Tor.com)

Alex Bledsoe’s TUFA stories are about the descendants of the Tuatha de Danann, who have lived for centuries in Appalachia. They have a special affinity for music, and there is a supernatural quality to both their artistry and their response to music. Pastor Craig Chess, the non-Tufa protagonist of the first TUFA book, The Hum and the Shiver, and my favorite character in the whole series, stars in “Shall We Gather.” He’s been called to the bedside of a dying man. Before he goes into the man’s house, he’s stopped by Mandalay Harris, the young leader of the Tufa tribe. She wants Pastor Chess to ask the dying man a question about God.

“Shall We Gather” is a thoughtful examination of an important theological question. The reason I love Pastor Chess is that he seeks faith and truth while being open-minded, non-judgmental, and loving. As I mentioned in my review of The Hum and the Shiver, as a Christian, I appreciate what Bledsoe did with this character, and I enjoyed reading another TUFA story written from his perspective. ~Kat Hooper


“The Savannah Liars Tour” by Will McIntosh (2016, $3.99 for Kindle for magazine issue; free at Lightspeed Magazine)

In “Savannah Liars Tour,” Will McIntosh follows his protagonist, Ben, to a Savannah that never existed. Ben visits this place — shortly revealed as the afterlife — in order to see his dead wife, Delilah. But his current wife, Jillian, feels that Ben’s affection is unfairly split between the living and the dead. In addition, the cryo-technology that allows these visits is costly and dangerous. Ben journeys back to his dream-Savannah one last time, to tell Delilah goodbye.

The format of this story, which flips both from life to afterlife, and from the present to the past, was challenging at first. But McIntosh provided all the details I needed to piece the world together, and the emotional lives of the characters began to take primacy by the time I got to Ben’s dilemma. McIntosh paints all three of the characters in his unusual love triangle very vividly, and Ben’s final moments on the page are poignant. ~Kate Lechler


“Small Wars” by Matt Wallace (2016, $0.99 for Kindle, free at Tor.com)

This short story follows the first book in Matt Wallace‘s SIN DU JOUR urban fantasy series, Envy of Angels, which  tells the story of two out of work New York City chefs, Lena and Darren, who are thrilled to get jobs with Sin du Jour, an exclusive catering company. But they soon find out that the clients of Sin du Jour are also an exclusive group: demons and other supernatural creatures, who have very demanding taste buds and a predilection for highly unusual dishes.

In order to create these dishes, Sin du Jour has a “stocking and receiving team” that will go to almost any lengths to obtain the rare ingredients necessary for the recipes that will keep the demons and goblins satisfied … and non-murderous. The team members have various talents, including sword-fighting, taste-testing deadly foods, and magical alchemy powers:

After having his beverage service cut off less than two hours after takeoff, Ryland began requesting cups of water and changing them into white wine.

The only reason they weren’t all detained upon arrival was because, when confronted, the air marshal couldn’t find any hidden supply or alcohol or a corresponding empty vessel.

“Small Wars” follows this ingredient-hunting team on one of its expeditions to Wales, searching for Welsh gold to use in a recipe, “[b]ecause it’s the rarest in the world and it’s a royal goblin wedding. They want the best.” When the team blasts a hole in an abandoned gold mine and enters, they unexpectedly run afoul of some extremely small but dangerous gnomes and leprechauns, who split up the team and force them to participate in their deadly turf war.

There’s both humor and poignancy in this story of how various misfits came together to form a team, reflected also in their experiences in the violent, waning underground world of the gnomes and leprechauns. Ultimately, “Small Wars” feels a bit too episodic: it’s not really a complete story by itself, but a piece of a larger tale. I think it would be preferable to start with Envy of Angels rather than here if you want to check out the SIN DU JOUR series and Wallace’s humorous, gritty writing (short excerpts from Envy of Angels, as well as from the second book in the series, Lustlocked, which follows “Small Wars,” are both on Tor.com). The excerpt from Lustlocked relates to this short story ― you find out who the goblin king and queen really are!)  However, “Small Wars” works reasonably well as a stand-alone story and provides a freely available introduction to this urban fantasy world. ~Tadiana Jones


“Beyond the Heliopause” by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown (2016, $3.99 on Kindle for magazine issue, free at Lightspeed Magazine, )

Suzanne, a highly respected journalist, gets an urgent message to visit her father back in England. On her way, the sight of a man who resembles her ex-husband Charles calls up memories of how Charles had suddenly left her two years earlier to lead a mission outside Pluto’s orbit “to map the vast universe beyond.” At her father’s home, she receives some distressing news from her dad regarding his health and his loss of faith, but before she can process the information her trip is interrupted by yet another urgent message. This one is from Charles, telling her he has a huge story for her if she joins him out at the research post. Despite her anger about their failed marriage, she can’t resist the promise of a big news story. Charles’ secret turns out to be more than that ― it’s the greatest discovery in the history of humanity.

“Beyond the Heliopause” suffers greatly, I’d say, for its brevity. Brooke and Brown really try to cram in a novella’s worth of story here, and the result is a story that slights its characters, plot, and premise. Exposition is relatively clumsy and, perhaps due to the story’s length, there is too much telling versus showing throughout. The segment with Suzanne’s father might have been nicely integrated if given time to develop, but appearing as it does so briefly, it just feels tacked on as an overly-blunt bit of authorial manipulation. The quickness of pace also makes it difficult to fully buy into any of the implied emotionality — whether it be grief over her father’s illness, sorrow over his loss of faith (even that is presented without explanation and so feels, again, like a clumsy authorial plot device), anger over her failed marriage, or the hint of a possible reconciliation. And while the big reveal is interesting and would have made a great premise for a more substantive story, there are too many implausibilities and unanswered questions, wrapping up far too quickly and neatly. “Beyond the Heliopause” has a great core idea, but the story wrapped around it feels surprisingly unfinished and amateurish. ~Bill Capossere


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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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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 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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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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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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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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10 comments

  1. I snickered when I read the title “Brisk Money” and now that I see that Adam Christopher was writing a Chandler pastiche (with a mocking slant) I am outright chortling. Chandler made fun of SF stories and wondered, in a letter, why people “would pay brisk money” for them.

  2. Something about Bill’s description of the plot of “Beyond the Heliopause” caught my attention, so I just went and read it despite his 1 star rating. While I didn’t think it was quite as bad as Bill did, and it had its moments, there’s too much “telling” rather than “showing,” and ultimately the ending was a bit of a let-down. I agree with Bill that the Big Reveal needed to be explored further to give it the necessary heft. I’d go 2 stars on this one.

  3. Jana, interesting you had a more positive reaction to “Brisk Money” than we both had to the longer version–I’d suspected that would be the case

    Tadiana, glad you liked the story a bit more. I’m not sure whether I should be impressed you went to read a one-star rated story or worried you think I’m just a cranky reader . . . :)

    • Bill, it’s just that your description of the plot of “Beyond the Heliopause” intrigued me. And perhaps there was a bit of an element of, I wonder if I might like it better than grumpy Bill? ;)

    • The short story maintained all of the noir trappings beautifully without diverging into that weird pulpy nonsense at the climax/end of the novel (you know what I’m talking about, that scene with the things and the people and the yelling). Such a shame that the novel didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.

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