SFM: Blackwell, Spires, Grizzle, Fox, Anderson

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

“Waves of Influence” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (2018, free at Clarkesworld magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Chenghui, a clever young Chinese woman, has committed fraud to win a contest to be trained by Meixiu, an internet sensation and social influencer. Chenghui’s sister, Yixuan, is a devoted fan of Meixiu, and is also slowly dying of a heart ailment. Chenghui reasons that if she can work her way into Meixiu’s inner circle, she can use her position to pretend to be Meixiu and send personalized messages to Yixuan, giving her the encouragement to keep fighting her illness. But Chenghui’s plain outward appearance puts off the extremely image-conscious Meixiu.

Chenghui’s reasoning is weak ― really, VERY weak, if she thinks that abandoning her sister for an extended period of time to pursue this impersonation plan is ultimately in her sister’s best interests. But the rest of the story resonates, showing society’s fascination with celebrity and how people artificially enhance their online images to look more attractive, ending up somewhere that’s unreal and fake. The tools we currently use to improve our appearances and gain online influence have been amped up in this future world, in some intriguing ways. Chenghui’s chosen path of seeking social glory for an altruistic reason ends up taking her in a direction that she never anticipated … but should have. ~Tadiana Jones


“An Accidental Coven” by Laura Blackwell (2018, free at Syntax and Salt)

Full disclosure: I consider Laura Blackwell a friend and I’m pleased to have shared a Table of Contents with her, but I wouldn’t review this story if I hadn’t really enjoyed it.

“An Accidental Coven” addresses the kind of privileged, superficial social climbing that I often think has disappeared. Plainly it has not, and Blackwell makes good use of it here as our narrator relates the events at a society party, substituting titles for names to “protect” people from embarrassment. To her slightly amused shock, three random women wear the same distinctive dress to the event. The narrator expects the three to dodge to different corners of the party, but instead something strange happens. The narration then shifts to an omniscient narrator who follows each of the three women ― the Artist, the Athlete and the Gardener ― as each woman finds the dress. The dress is clearly the same in each instance, but each woman is drawn to something different about it. And when the three women meet at the party, the effect is truly magical. The social climbers are changed, possibly forever.

Blackwell could have made this a snarky, mean-spirited story, but she chose to go in a very different direction. And moments in the story reach out off the screen, like the scent of clean loam and blooming flowers, or a spring breeze, and touch the reader. ~Marion Deeds


“What My Family Should Know in the Event of My Demise” by Darrell Z. Grizzle (2018, free at Daily Science Fiction)

Told in the form of a list of things to be done once the speaker has died, this story has a nice wry sense of humor throughout, as when the speaker instructs the reader to cut the cats some slack if they happen to have eaten some of his dead body before anyone shows up. As the story continues, Grizzle adds in an enticing bit of mystery with regard to the world the story is set in. I actually would have preferred that bit of mystery rather than where the story goes afterward, which was a bit too direct for me (as in, it felt like it was trying a bit too hard). ~Bill Capossere


“Coyote Now Wears a Suit” by Ani Fox (2018, free at Apex Magazine; $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Kupua is a member of a large, eccentric and colorful Hawaiian clan that careens from one crisis to the next. As the story begins, Kupua is helping to get a friend of the family released on bail. While they’re in the Honolulu Police Station, he sees Coyote ― as in, the Sioux trickster god ― sitting in the room with them. To Kupua, he looks just like a real dog, albeit dressed in an Armani suit, but he soon realizes that everyone else sees Coyote as “Cousin Mica.” But when everything starts to go wrong on this crazy day, Kupua is pretty certain he knows who to blame.

This story is also about the secrets that Kupua is hiding from his family: first, he’s gay, transgender, and a cross-dresser. Also, he’s an excellent student, and he’s sitting on an acceptance letter from Harvard University, including a full ride scholarship. The answer to Harvard is due in four days, but Kupua is afraid to leave his family and his boyfriend behind.

This story is rather chaotic in its style, though I have to concede that’s befitting of the trickster Coyote’s personality and methods; not so much of the narrator’s hidden academic personality, though it reflects the side of his personality he shows around his family. It’s somewhat hard to follow, both because of this writing style and because of the liberal use of pidgin Hawaiian (without translations) in the dialogue and narration. But it’s a goodhearted tale, balancing love of family with the need to follow your own path, and the Coyote element adds a nice twist … though I’m still not sure what the Sioux god was doing in Hawaii. Vacationing, maybe. ~Tadiana Jones


“Ghosts of Mars” by Kevin J. Anderson (2018, free at Daily Science Fiction)

As humanity’s first crewed mission to Mars is preparing to land, one of its crewmembers hears some strange voices from the past. This is a nice homage to classic sci-fi writers of Mars stories: Wells, Bradbury, Burroughs, Lowell (OK, not a sci-fi writer but you get it), and I liked the premise and the homage aspect. I could have done without the quickly-dropped possibility that the voices were real; it was a little too on-the-nose for me. And I would have liked some interactions between the past voices, but overall a solid story. ~Bill Capossere


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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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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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