SFM: Barthelme, McGuire, Hurley, Wong, Vaughn, Anders, Headley, Shawl, Bolander, Walton, El-Mohtar, Valente, Dick

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about. 

“Report” by Donald Barthelme (1967, originally published in the New Yorker, free at Jessamyn.com (reprinted by permission), also collected in Sixty Stories)

“Our group is against the war. But the war goes on. I was sent to Cleveland to talk to the engineers. The engineers were meeting in Cleveland. I was supposed to persuade them not to do what they were going to do.”

“Report,” by Donald Barthelme, was published in the New Yorker in 1967. The USA was deeply embroiled in Viet Nam, people demonstrated not only against the war but against racial inequality, and the country was terrified of the possibility of global thermonuclear war. “Report,” an expertly surrealistic piece, captures a unique period in history, and it is completely timely today.

While Donald Barthelme didn’t consider himself a speculative fiction writer, he is loved by many speculative fiction writers and fans, and he had no trouble creating cities and worlds that partook of both the everyday 1960s world around him and the structures of his own imagination. He managed to create meticulous detail while telling the reader little of the time and place they were in. The Cleveland of “Report” is a great example of that. We know what flight the narrator came in on; we have no idea what the city looks like, except as we’ve filled it in ourselves.

Our unnamed narrator meets with the engineers, who are staying in a motel, and having a session that looks like a cross between a bachelor party and a convention. The narrator notices that many of the engineers have broken bones (the story is medically precise in the nature of these fractures). The rest of the story is a conversation between the narrator and the chief engineer.

The chief engineer says that “our thing is working. The other things aren’t working.” When asked to stop using their thing, the chief engineer delivers a paean to the wonders of their weapons, a surreal riff that spirals outward, glorious, unbelievable and somehow completely realistic. There are greater and more terrible weapons than the ones they are already using, the chief engineer says, and goes on to describe them. And finally, the greatest weapon of all, a single word that will fracture bones in every living thing in an area as big as four football fields. And our narrator remembers the many broken bones among the engineers.

Hmm.

There are passages like this:

“… I have a few new marvels to talk to you about. A few new marvels that are just about ready to be gaped at by the admiring layman. Consider for instance the area of realtime online computer-controlled wish evaporation. Wish evaporation is going to be crucial in meeting the expectations of the world’s peoples, which are as you know rising entirely too fast.”

Thinking of embittered gen-Xers and millennials who feel that they were left a life that is less than what their parents had, I can see how some folks would have liked that wish-evaporation thing. Certainly “Report” does not shy away from its main weapons-proliferation point; if humans make something, they will use it. “Report” is an anti-war story, but if offers other observations about mid-20th century living, and human nature. “Report” rewards the reader upon rereading, if only for the weird and brilliant prose. ~Marion Deeds


“Anthony’s Vampire” by Seanan McGuire (2009, republished July 2016 and free at Nightmare, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

This story works a bit of magic by leading you to expect one outcome, then beautifully presenting you with something else entirely.

“Anthony’s Vampire” concerns Anthony and a vampire girl he met outside his window when he was 9 years old. After becoming fast friends, the vampire asks him if he would like to go with her: to learn how to be a vampire and live forever. When he refuses, the story begins down an interesting path.

This is one of those stories where you’re allowed (and encouraged) to dislike the main character. The slow build of the plot is expertly paced and let me see the signs of the nature of the relationship between Anthony and the vampire before any of the groundwork bore fruit. The glimpses of the vampire and the insight into Anthony’s psyche made for a compelling read to the very end. ~ Skye Walker

Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones also rated “Anthony’s Vampire” 4 stars in our Oct. 31, 2016 SFM column.


“Nevertheless, She Persisted,” a collection of short fiction by various authors (March 2017, free on Tor.com)

On March 8, 2017, Tor published on its website eleven short speculative works (ten flash fiction stories and one poem) by various women, all notable authors. These works are based on the theme “Nevertheless, she persisted,” part of a comment made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defending use of a little-known rule against impugning the motives or conduct of a senator, to cut off a speech by Senator Elizabeth Warren in February, in which she was criticizing Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general (“Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”). The phrase was quickly taken up and transformed into a rallying cry, in recognition of women who have persisted in voicing their opinions and taking action despite establishment opposition.

These stories (and the poem) are so brief that I hesitate to give them individual ratings, but some definitely had a deeper impact on me than others. These eleven works are:

“The Last of the Minotaur Wives” by Brooke Bolander ― Blue is alone in the labyrinth under the palace, the last of her lot of Minotaur Brides. She’s a concubine kept in darkness, listening to the dancing feet above her. But the Minotaur wives dream of escape, and they leave each other advice and instructions that mysteriously grow in their bones. It did occur to me to wonder why the male Minotaur doesn’t ever appear in this story, but this fantastical tale of hope and strength in darkness and captivity was my favorite in the collection.

“Astronaut” by Maria Dahvana Headley ― It’s 1959, and one Miss Baker is on a mission to defy gravity. Her thirteen male competitors at the academy try to dissuade or intimidate her (“No one likes a girl who tries to climb over everyone else”), but Miss Baker ignores them and devotes herself to her training, gradually leaving them all in her dust. I loved the twist in this one! It caught me completely by surprise.

“Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light!” by Kameron Hurley ― Women are discouraged from fighting the giant monsters in the mountains that threaten to overwhelm their city. Moira’s own grandmother died trying. But Moira knows that she has to try, despite the life-threatening danger (“We all fight monsters, she knew. There was no shame in losing.”) . The title, interestingly, is based on “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!,” a 1976 post-apocalyptic short story by James Tiptree, Jr. A moving story of bravery.

“God Product” by Alyssa Wong ― Each person is adopted by a god, but Caroline bitterly resents having been chosen by a small, quiet god. When a powerful god’s time comes to choose, Caroline decides to take drastic action to change which god she is bonded to. I admire Wong for taking an unexpected path with the theme in this cautionary tale.

“Alchemy” by Carrie Vaughn ― Endless lab experiments, countless hours of study, discouraging words from those around her. Yet she persists in seeking for the breakthrough. “Alchemy” has some beautiful imagery:

She had patience. The patience of stones worn away by wind and water, of continents creeping into one another to create mountains, of crystals growing in dark places. The patience of a planet caught in orbit around a sun that would last ten billion years before burning it all back to stardust.

 

She longed to be stardust.

“Margot and Rosalind” by Charlie Jane Anders ― Margot, in violation of law, keeps an unlicensed Hyperbrain that she calls Rosalind, because the brain likes her stories about the pioneer scientist Rosalind Franklin. Margot is warned that connecting her mind to her illicit Hyperbrain could cause “unimaginable chaos.” Intriguing, and it has some great ideas, though I wanted to know what happened after the story ends. Worth the price of admission just to read about the talking ice sculpture and piece of toast the authorities send to Margot to try to convince her to obey their rules.

“Persephone” by Seanan McGuire ― The narrator and her lovely friend Mary are two young women from society’s underclass, sisters in their hearts if not biologically. They decide to give blood, donating extra under the table in return for some needed cash. A neat little taste of horror.

“The Jump Rope Rhyme” by Jo Walton ― This work is the lone poem, relating how a jump rope verse teaches children the legends of women who fight for freedom, who take on monsters and oppression. Who persist, as does the jump-roping child. It’s pretty pedestrian poetry, but I give Walton credit for taking on the challenge of writing her piece in rhymed couplets.

“The Ordinary Woman and the Unquiet Emperor” by Catherynne M. Valente ― The Unquiet Emperor, a tyrannical ruler who has outlawed questions, answers, backtalk, names, and anything else that he or his advisors think might cause division or dissent, sends out his chief emissary ― which is a “ghastly, suppurating, tooth-crowded mouth, and nothing more” ― to summon an ordinary woman who, he thinks, loves him. The emissary gives the woman strict instructions for her meeting with the emperor, in all his finery and corruption … which orders, naturally, she is moved to disregard. Symbols become reality in this surreal tale.

“Anabasis” by Amal El-Mohtar ― The narrator calls herself a shapeshifter, though it’s not clear that she’s one in the traditional sense. But her specialty is mouths: she has a pretty, soft-spoken mouth that she uses to pass in society. And her real mouth …

My real mouth is full of sharp teeth and a sharper tongue, three languages coiled like snakes in my throat, scaly and silent. My real mouth is an armoury of words forged in the furnace of my chest, hot as a spitted sun. My real mouth is a storm, and my voice is thunder.

“Anabasis” has some nice writing, but it overshadows the thin plot, which is difficult to discern amongst all the imagery.

“More than Nothing” by Nisi Shawl ― In a backwards mountain community, Cora persists in singing her pagan prayers, despite warnings from the creepy Pastor Rose, who is married to Cora’s twin sister. The pastor says it’s the Devil trying to lure Cora astray, but there’s someone else who believes in her magic. This short wasn’t as memorable for me as most of the others. ~Tadiana Jones


The Variable Man by Philip K. Dick (1953, originally published in Space Science Fiction, free at Project Gutenberg)

In the year 2136, our planet Terra’s space exploration is cut short by the Centauran Empire of Proxima Centauri, which surrounds our solar system and refuses to allow humanity access to the galaxy. Faster-than-light travel exists, but always results in an explosion when the FTL device reenters normal space, so there’s no way to jump past the Centaurans. Both sides are constantly working to come up with new weapons and strategies, and spying on the other to discern their latest developments, but, curiously, there is very little actual fighting. The Terrans have an SRB computer that is constantly evaluating humanity’s odds of succeeding in an actual war with the Centaurans, and they’re waiting to fight until the computer shows that the odds have shifted in their favor.

But now it has occurred to the human researchers that they can use an FTL device as a bomb against the Centaurans, which they’ll be unable to avoid because of its FTL speed. While the scientists are working madly on ironing out the problems with delivering the bomb (which they call Icarus) accurately, another group of Terran researchers quickly pull their time machine back to the present. The time machine accidently brings back one Thomas Cole, a handyman from the year 1913. Cole takes off and escapes the government facilities … and now the SRB computer refuses to compute odds on the Centauran battle. Cole has created an unknown variable that the computer cannot deal with.

So Cole goes on the run, while Security Commissioner Reinhart angrily does his best to have his military forces kill him so that he can get his odds calculations back and start the war. Peter Sherikov, the scientific director, becomes aware of Cole’s intuitive genius at fixing machines and wants to make use of his talents, but Reinhart has no intention of changing his plans.

The Variable Man is a fast-paced novella with some old-fashioned charm, like much Golden Age science fiction, but also suffers from some of the shortcomings of many other older SF tales: women are non-existent or appear only as sex objects, the characters are stereotypical, and there is a focus on action in the plot at the expense of depth or characterization. Also, the linchpin of the plot ― that Cole is such a mechanical genius that his untrained skills are hugely useful with technology more than two hundred years later ― proved too much for my disbelief to be suspended. Still, Philip K. Dick spins a good yarn, and I enjoyed the retro vibe of this story. ~Tadiana Jones


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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SKYE WALKER, on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (but hanging around since 2007), is from Canada, where she is currently a University student studying Anthropology and Communications. When she isn’t reading or doing school work (or reading for school work) she can be found in one of three places: in a tent in the woods, amid a sea of craft supplies on a floor somewhere, or completing the task of finishing her ‘Must Watch’ movie list. Skye was practically born with a love of fantasy and science fiction (as her name might suggest). These days her favourite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Chris Wooding. Skye is in fact a Jedi (we know you were waiting for it).

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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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7 comments

  1. I agree with Tadiana — some of the flash fiction entries for “Nevertheless, She Persisted” were stronger than the others, but overall, they were intriguing.

  2. Skye, I thought “Anthony’s Vampire” was great, especially the ending!

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