SFM: Shu, Lemberg, Salvatore, Bradbury, Pinsker

Short Fiction Monday: Here are some of the stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about, most of which are free to read online. This week we continue focusing on 2015 Nebula-nominated short fiction, along with some other stories that caught our attention.

“Everybody Loves Charles” by Bao Shu, trans. Ken Liu (2016, free at Clarkesworld magazine; Kindle magazine issue).

I listened to this novella in the car on the way to WriteFest in Houston, and (as is becoming a thing with Clarkesworld stories) it made me cry. It tells the intertwined stories of Takumi Naoto and Charles Mann, one a virtual shut-in, the other a world-wide celebrity. Lurking behind their personal existential crises, a darker menace threatens all of society through the ubiquitous “livecasting,” the virtual reality mechanism that allows people to live vicariously through the exploits of celebrity livecasters.

Naoto is addicted, of course, to living the life of Charles Mann. Tens of thousands of people live through Charles every day, as he writes bestselling novels, wins exciting air-races, and seduces lovely actresses and models. But both characters are in for a rude awakening when Charles is convinced by his latest girlfriend to turn off his livecast. Naoto realizes that his life — the life of a lowly computer programmer — is worth living. And Charles realizes the intimacy that can be had between two people when millions of others aren’t constantly listening in.

But Charles’s media manager isn’t happy when he turns his livecast off and, through her, we learn secrets about how the technology for livecasting works and what it is for.

This complicated novella doesn’t rest on platitudes or easily-won happy endings. Just when I thought I had the plot figured out, Bao Shu took me in another direction. While I felt like the story could have ended before the epilogue and been complete, the epilogue ends on a dark and ominous note that is probably more realistic than what I had hoped for the characters. ~Kate Lechler


Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds by Rose Lemberg (free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies; Kindle magazine issue). Nominated for the 2015 Nebula award (novelette).

This Nebula-nominated novelette begins with a lovely image: a grandmother’s aged hands, opening a wooden box ribbed with ivory and studded with nails, and pulling out an magicall, invisible cloth made of wind, burying her face in it and inhaling deeply, while the child Aviya watches from her hiding place. As Aviya comes of age, we gradually learn of her unique desert culture, where women form trading groups and undertake dangerous journeys to distant lands, while cloistered men are the keepers of scholarship and the makers of goods. Gay romantic relationships are the norm, with men and women meeting up only a few times a year in semi-dark ritual chambers, so that children will be born.

But even in this non-gender-normative culture, Aviya’s family has issues: Aviya has virtually no magical sense, hindering her from taking a “deepname” (representative of one’s magical ability) and becoming a valued member of a trading group. Her younger brother Kimriel is apparently autistic and can say only a few words; the men, therefore, refuse to let him join their society and he is forced to assume the dress and name of a girl ― although it’s hard to see how this can be a long-term solution. And Aviya’s other grandmother, Grandmother-nai-Tammah, is transsexual, desiring to be a man, and Aviya is having profound difficulties accepting that.

Rose Lemberg states on her website that this is “a trans story, with multiple trans characters, written by a trans person about trans lives.” Although many speculative fiction tales explore sexual roles in unique ways, this story really turned my assumptions upside down and inside out. Even if the story was overly ambiguous at times for my taste, and some of the aspects of Aviya’s culture a little too unlikely, it is unusual, creative and richly imagined.

I get impatient with SFF works that get attention for including gay, bi and trans characters or issues but are otherwise rather run-of-the-mill stories. Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds definitely is not simple or ordinary. It contains imaginative, complex worldbuilding with multiple threads, and memorable characters who struggle with their identity, with no easy answers. The wonderful cloth of winds remains an elusive symbol, perhaps of the various characters’ hopes and desires. ~Tadiana Jones


“Mather’s Blood: A Tale of DemonWars” by R.A. Salvatore (2015, Audible).

I haven’t read any of R.A. Salvatore’s DEMONWARS saga, but last year this short story was being given away free at Audible, and it’s narrated by Wil Wheaton, whom I love, so I grabbed it. (It now costs around $2.) “Mather’s Blood,” I learned, is a prequel, so it doesn’t require any knowledge of the series. It’s about a man named Mather Wyndon, a ranger who is the uncle of Elbryan, one of the saga’s protagonists. In this short story (only 45 minutes), we see him team up with a badass centaur to kill goblins who are terrorizing a town. Then he helps some travelers who are about to get trapped in a blizzard. These travelers are important to Mather, though he doesn’t actually know them.

“Mather’s Blood” is a pleasant little story that will be of most interest to fans of the DEMONWARS series or readers who want to get a feel for the epic. I get the feeling that Mather is something of a legendary figure, and this story gives us a glimpse of him.

Wil Wheaton is a great narrator and someone I always enjoy listening to, though I thought his voice and tone sounded a little too modern for the slightly archaic dialogue in this story. ~Kat Hooper


“The Concrete Mixer” by Ray Bradbury (1949, in public domain or Kindle/Audible).

Originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in April 1949, “The Concrete Mixer” is one of Ray Bradbury’s first published stories. It’s about a war between Mars and Earth. The Martians, who are warmongers, plan to attack Earth despite the warnings of Ettil Vrye, a Martian who thinks they can never defeat Earth because the men of Earth were raised on fantastic literature in which they are always repelling invasions from space. But Ettil is forced to join the Marian invasion force and is surprised to discover that the Earthlings have weapons that are far worse than he expected.

“The Concrete Mixer” is a scathing commentary on American culture. If you’re familiar with Bradbury, you can probably guess how it will go. The sexism is so annoying, but it’s interesting to read one of Bradbury’s early stories and to recognize some of the themes he uses in his later work. Rish Outfield gives a nice performance of the audio version, which is 50 minutes long. ~Kat Hooper


Our Lady of the Open Road, Sarah Pinsker (2015, Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine). Nominated for Winner of the 2015 Nebula award (novelette).

Luce and her bandmates Silva and Jacky travel the backroads of America in their bio-diesel van, Daisy, playing punk music as the band “Cassis Fire” and dumpster-diving for most of their meals. Electronic services such as StageHolo and SportsHolo bring entertainment directly to a consumer’s home, but live bands like Cassis Fire and Moby K. Dick still exist, and Luce considers their itinerant lifestyle to be a defiant middle finger to the corporate stooges who sell, in Luce’s opinion, “the technology that was trying to make me obsolete.”

Sarah Pinsker’s Our Lady of the Open Road was nominated for a 2015 Nebula (Best Novelette), and I’m at a loss as to why. The story feels unfinished, lacking many details which would enrich the world Pinsker created as well as explain elements which hint at a socially anxious future. I wish Pinsker had put more emphasis on why and how society changed, why people are scared of “the pox” or gathering in large groups, and why Daisy isn’t allowed on interstate highways. The novelette reads as a slightly futuristic travel diary with occasional nods toward technology, and I’m the type of reader who wants more elements of the speculative in my speculative fiction. Your own enjoyment of this story will probably hinge on your tolerance for punk-aesthetic diatribes expressing “indignation that we were losing everything that made us distinct, that nothing special happened anymore.”

Pinsker writes well about the life of traveling musicians, which makes sense, because she lives it. But I wish she’d included the lyrics to “Our Lady of the Open Road” so that I could understand why it’s such a powerful and popular song; this would have gone a long way toward making Luce seem like a real, conflicted person rather than a mouthpiece. Moreover, every conflict the band faces is solved too easily, and always by someone else stepping in and lending a hand or equipment, or paying a bar tab, or giving the band food and shelter. This may be due to the intervention of Our Lady of the Open Road, but if that’s the case, Pinsker needed to make it more obvious. ~Jana Nyman


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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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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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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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2 comments

  1. I read “Everyone Loves Charles” after reading Kate’s great review. It was an interesting story: it had a bit of a retro feel to it, with the conspiracy angle. I’m not surprised to see that it came from a country other than the U.S. The Chinese angle was a nice addition and added some flavor to the story. The epilogue though! D:

    Jana, I tried to read “Our Lady of the Open Road” and bailed after just a few pages. It wasn’t pulling me in at all, either!

    • We’ll have to find someone who enjoyed it so that they can tell us all of the best parts. :) I’m actually not being snarky — I’d love to read a positive review of “Our Lady!”

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