SFM: Baker, Pinsker, McCarry

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. 

The Bohemian Astrobleme by Kage Baker (2010, free at Subterranean Press, also included in Nell Gwynne’s Scarlet Spy)

The Bohemian Astrobleme is an entertaining Victorian steampunk novella about an adventure in the history of a rather underhanded and coldblooded group called the Gentleman’s Speculative Society. This so-called society is a secretive scientific research group, vastly ahead of its time. (It’s also the predecessor of the Company, a group of immortal merchants and scientists who travel back in time in order to make money for the Company, which plays a significant role in many of Kage Baker’s works.)

In this short story, The Gentleman’s Speculative Society, through sheer happenstance, becomes aware of a red-colored meteoric stone that generates an extremely powerful electrical charge when it comes into contact with acetic acid. They immediately send a group of three men to Bohemia to search for more of this stone ― which turns out to be far more difficult to track down and purchase than they anticipated, and can be found only in a single location that is a closely-held secret of one particular jeweler. So the leader of the group calls for more assistance, in the form of in an attractive, intelligent and practical-minded courtesan known as Lady Beatrice, a woman of many talents.

It was particularly felicitous that she happened to own, among a number of colored glass lenses designed to give her eyes a striking appearance, a scarlet pair; for, as she pointed out, one never knew what sort of peculiar fantasies (being seduced by a vampyre, for example) members of Parliament might request.

This is a darkly humorous tale with a bit of a mystery and some mayhem to it. It’s highly enjoyable to watch the scheming of the various characters as they try to outwit their targets ― and occasionally each other. The somewhat formal writing style with its dry wit fits this story extremely well. This was the first Kage Baker story I’ve read, but it definitely won’t be the last.


Our Lady of the Open Road, Sarah Pinsker (2015, free online on the author’s website, originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction). 2015 Nebula award (novelette).

Although I made a point of reading almost all of the Nebula short fiction nominees earlier this year to review in this column, for whatever reason I wasn’t too interested in Our Lady of the Open Road after glancing at the first few paragraphs. When Jana Nyman read it and was unenthusiastic about it in her review in our March 14, 2016 column, rating it 2.5 stars, I allowed it to slide. But this novelette ended up winning the Nebula award, and since Sarah Pinsker has made it freely available to read on her website, I thought I would give it another shot. I was glad I did.

Luce is an itinerant musician in a near-future version of our world, where some unexplained event has crushed much of society. Life for live musicians is made even more difficult by the fact that new technology called StageHolo, which allows venues to show highly realistic holographic recordings of musical groups, has largely wiped out the opportunities for most groups to do live shows. But there are still a few places, here and there, where Luce’s three-person band, Cassis Fire, can do live shows. So they drive an ancient, cooking grease-powered van from place to place, living on the edge, with frequent dumpster diving for meals and infrequent showers. A representative from StageHolo really wants Cassis Fire to join them, which would solve the group’s financial woes, but Luce can’t abide the thought: that just isn’t real music.

Our Lady of the Open Road is a little short on the broader world-building; Pinsker chooses to focus instead on the gritty details of day-to-day life for a traveling band. Her descriptions of the hard-scrabble nature of life on the road ring true, as does the transcendent moment when Cassis Fire is performing and everything just clicks. The crowd goes wild and, reading this scene, you understand the irreplaceable role that live music performances play. That doesn’t negate the almost overwhelming difficulties of this life but, at least for some people, those moments make everything else worthwhile.

According to her website bio, Pinsker, in addition to being an author, is also a singer/songwriter who has three albums on independent labels, and has played music in twenty different states. That real-life experience clearly comes through in the pages of this story, giving it authenticity.


“Noble Mold” by Kage Baker (1997, originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, republished 2014 and free online at Clarkesworld, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

My enjoyment of The Bohemian Astrobleme led me on a search for more online stories by Kage Baker. This story, “Noble Mold,” was Baker’s first published work, introducing her readers to the Company and some of its personnel.

Joseph is an immortal employee of the Company, currently posing as a padre at a Roman Catholic mission in mid-19th century California, while also assisting the Company with receiving, storing, and shipping various products. It’s a pleasant, relaxing posting for Joseph, at least until he gets a visit from Mendoza, another immortal Company employee. Mendoza is a botanist charged with collecting genetic material from all of the grapevines in the area, before they’re replaced by the varieties that the Yankees will bring, and are lost.

When Mendoza finds a vine with some highly favorable mutations ― unique and beneficial mold and yeast infestations ― the Company orders her to get the entire vine, roots and all, from the family that owns it. Mendoza is delighted: she’ll get a major reward for finding and delivering this vine to the Company. The only problem is, actually obtaining the whole vine turns out to be far more difficult than anticipated, and Mendoza and Joseph can’t figure out why.

The mystery here is a bit light, though it has a touching aspect to it, but what comes through most powerfully in this tale is the distinction between Mendoza’s and Joseph’s attitudes and behaviors toward the native people in that time and place. Joseph tries to remind Mendoza several times that the Kasmali family needs to be treated with respect, but Mendoza is having a hard time seeing past her desire to acquire the valuable grapevine, by whatever means necessary. Joseph’s creative but compassionate thinking was a clear contrast to Mendoza’s haughty acquisitiveness; it’s a bit simplistic, perhaps, but true to historical fact. The disclosure of exactly why this particular grapevine is so important to the Company is the icing on the cake.


“Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” by Sarah McCarry (Oct. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

A young woman, an aspiring author, moves to the big city to try to find success. What she finds instead is a life of hard knocks, and an ancient vampire who befriends her and sometimes helps her copyedit vampire romance books. Our nameless narrator gets a job as an assistant to a literary agent, who gives her others’ manuscripts to review on her own time, unpaid, for her “career development.” She lives in a cheap, shabby apartment with four other girls who all, like the narrator, came to the city to do something other than what they are now doing. The heat in their apartment has been broken for months.

There are nights I think the cutting wind will pull me apart and cauterize what’s left into solid ice. I came here with my pockets full of dreams but the people-clotted streets are lonelier than anywhere I’ve known. The place I left behind never got cold enough to kill you.

This short story is a mix of an amusing sendup of the paranormal romance genre and a poignant tale of struggling to get by, losing hope in your dreams, with a hard look at the cut-throat world of publishing. The title, interestingly, is a translated line from a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, exploring his theory of colors (Farbenlehre): “Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; Blue is a darkness weakened by the light.” While Goethe’s theory may not be scientifically correct, it relates to how humans experience light and darkness, with the color blue being the next thing to total darkness.

The mood of this story is poignant and bleak, with occasional touches of humor to lighten the darkness. There is little here by way of plot, though the emotional complexity helps to make up for it. There’s an interesting note of uncertainty, in the end, as to whether the vampire is real or a figment of the main character’s imagination, something she has visualized to help her deal with her loneliness and hopelessness. But I wasn’t otherwise a fan of the ambiguous ending, which didn’t really wrap up the tale for me emotionally.


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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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One comment

  1. I’m glad you liked the Pinsker story more than I did, Tadiana. The day-to-day details were good (and obviously authentic) but, for me, they just weren’t enough to make up for the lack of world-building.

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