SFM: Anders, Nagata, Howard, McGuire, Clarke

Short Fiction Monday: After a few weeks’ vacation, SFM returns to continue exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read recently that we wanted you to know about. 

“As Good as New” by Charlie Jane Anders (2014, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Marisol Guzmán, a pre-med student who decided that being a doctor was a better career choice than a playwright, is saved from the end of the world only because she’s housecleaning a mansion when massive earthquakes began. She ran into the mansion’s panic room, conveniently equipped with a generator and ample food and video entertainment. And there she stayed for two years, while the earthquakes gradually lessened.

When she finally ventures out of the panic room, she finds that every organic thing on earth has been destroyed, consumed by a manmade fungus that died off after its food supply was used up. Luckily for Marisol and our story, she finds a green bottle nearby, and in the bottle …

“Wait,” Marisol said. “You’re a — You’re a genie?”

 

“I hate that term,” the man said. “I prefer wish-facilitator. And for your information, I used to be just a regular person. I was the theater critic at The New York Times for six months in 1958, which I still think defines me much more than my current engagement does. But I tried to bamboozle the wrong individual, so I got stuck in a bottle and forced to grant wishes to anyone who opens it.”

The natural thing for Marisol to wish for is to undo the extinction of life on earth, but a few stray words from the genie (“Not again!”) warn her to be careful about how she uses her wishes.

“As Good as New” is a highly amusing mashup of a post-apocalyptic cautionary tale, a primer on how to best use magical wishes, and a commentary on the importance of theater and the arts. A few touching moments and insights are juxtaposed with the humorous critiques of modern entertainment. Any uncertainties I had about the logic of this story were swept away in a wave of goodwill toward its creativity and humor. I enjoyed the way this played out! ~Tadiana Jones


“The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata (July 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

In another tale that explores human choices in the face of apocalyptic events, Susannah Li-Langford is an eighty year old architect who has spent the last seventeen years working on a master project. While civilization on Earth is in the final stages of collapse due to a combination of global warming, drug-resistant bacteria and other disasters, Susannah ― with the help and funding of an interested tycoon, Nate Sanchez ― is using remote technology to build a huge obelisk on Mars as a monument to humanity.

Using construction equipment and AIs from some failed and abandoned Martian colonies that Nate has purchased, Susannah is very slowly, tile by tile, building an immense, gleaming white obelisk that will reach into the upper atmosphere of Mars. Until, one day, the AI informs her that a vehicle from one of the failed colonies is approaching her obelisk.

“The Martian Obelisk” has an unusual premise with interesting scientific underpinnings, but it’s the human element explored by Linda Nagata that really makes this story successful. In a setting that displays the worst failings of humans, it also shows what is good and noble in us. There are a few welcome notes of hope, perhaps muted, but enough to remind us not to give up, even when life seems darkest. ~Tadiana Jones


“A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds” by Kat Howard (July 2017, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Twenty years after her grandmother has died, Luna receives a letter from her, informing Luna that she has inherited her grandmother’s home, if she’ll spend a year living there. As one might expect, the house is haunted; unexpectedly, the haunting is by bird. Sparrows, cardinals, ravens, owls. A wood duck is in the kitchen sink; a peacock in the bathtub (“He seemed friendly enough, but I preferred taking baths by myself”). At least they are oddly clean birds; no food scraps or droppings mess up Luna’s home. And Luna hears voices while she’s dreaming that seems to come from the birds.

It’s a bit of a cozy yet melancholy type of haunting, given additional resonance by its connections to the strained family relationships that Kat Howard explores in this story. Luna makes some interesting choices and intuitive leaps of logic in unraveling the mystery of the birds. I wasn’t sufficiently convinced by the plot of this story to buy into its underlying premise, but Howard’s evocative language and imagery are lovely. ~Tadiana Jones


“How the Maine Coon Cat Learned to Love the Sea” by Seanan McGuire ((July 2017, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

In this whimsical tribute to cats and oral storytelling, Seanan McGuire relates a fable about the adventures of a clan of beautiful, fluffy white Angora Cats (with a capital C), part of the cargo of a sailing ship. One day one of their number, a young but polite Cat, has a conversation with a seagull. The gull warns the Cat that Mother Carey is planning to wreck their ship before it reaches land. Clearly this trip is going to be more of an adventure than the Cats (or the sailors) anticipated!

It’s a charmingly told tale though, like the cats, rather fluffy. McGuire pulls in threads from various legends and folklore, but toward the end the story gets distinctly fragmented, as evidenced (for example) by the use of the phrase “but that is another story” no less than three times. Still, readers who love traditional storytelling mannerisms, or Cats, will almost certainly be enchanted. ~Tadiana Jones


A Meeting with Medusa by Arthur C. Clarke (1971, $3.95 at Audible). Nebula award (novella).

Years after barely surviving an airship accident above the Grand Canyon, Howard Falcon is persuaded to pilot the first manned spaceship to Jupiter. He spends a few days there, detailing all that he observes to his command center. What Falcon discovers on the gas giant is surprising, beautiful and alarming, like “a magical realm between myth and reality,” and the reader certainly feels the awe of travelling through an atmosphere full of gasses and electrical storms. Then there’s an interesting reveal at the end of this novella that makes the reader see Howard Falcon’s expedition in a new light.

A Meeting with Medusa reminded me a bit of C.S. LewisSPACE TRILOGY which also involved speculations about the fantastical life forms that could have evolved in the unique environments of some of the other planets in our solar system.

A Meeting with Medusa was originally published in Playboy in 1971 and it won the Nebula Award for Best Novella. I listened to the audio version read by the wonderful Jonathan Davis. It was produced by Audible Studios last year and is 2 hours long. You can also find the story in this collection. If you enjoy A Meeting with Medusa, a sequel called The Medusa Chronicles was written by Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter. ~Kat Hooper


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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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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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2 comments

  1. The only story I’ve read on this week’s list is the Charlie Jane Anders one, and I thought it was pretty good, too. I’ve been meaning to read the one by Linda Nagata, so thank you for reminding me to get on that! :)

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