SFM: Brennan, Edelstein, Kress, Sterling, Sobin, Grant

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

“From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review” by Marie Brennan (2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Have a little pity for the editors of the Falchester Weekly Review — when they published Mr. Benjamin Talbot’s news that he had recently come into possession of a cockatrice, they can’t have known it would result in a flurry of correspondence between Talbot and one Mrs. Isabella Camherst, played out in the pages of their journal. But honestly, he claimed to have physical proof of a mythical creature from the very Broken Sea she had just finished exploring. She can hardly be faulted for expressing her desire to see the creature, or for becoming suspicious and asking for a public demonstration when Talbot shilly-shallies about the details, resorting to insulting her gender and scholarship rather than providing hard evidence.

Talbot’s panic is almost palpable in a subsequent letter, reading, “Although her enthusiasm is remarkable, I begin to feel that she is using your publication as a forum for some kind of campaign against me, which might better have been carried out in private correspondence,” the Scirling equivalent of, “I came out to have a good time and I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now.” Foolish man. I’d rather face down a charging sea-serpent than raise Lady Trent’s ire.

Having now read all of the MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENT books, I feel I can say with some small authority that this short story would work equally well as an introduction to Lady Trent’s uniquely charming voice and keen intelligence or as a quick read between the events of Voyage of the Basilisk and In the Labyrinth of Drakes, when the selection of letters was supposedly written. One could just as easily read the story between any of the novels or after finishing the entire series, truthfully; there’s nothing here that dictates specifically when it must be read, as the primary concern is Lady Trent’s unstoppable quest for scientific knowledge (and her unflappable wit). And the concluding letter is the perfect capstone to this little tête-à-tête. ~Jana Nyman

Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones reviewed “From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review” in our SFM feature on April 18, 2016 and rated it 3 stars.


“Abere and the Poisoner” by Jonathan Edelstein (2016, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)

A young poet enters a swamp, looking for a particular flower needed for a love potion. Instead, he discovers a series of nested stories concerning a  swamp witch, a rattan bride, and an assassin, all related by one who calls himself the “Eaten One.”

The story structure — only one side of the “conversation” — creates intriguing gaps and forces the reader to do some work in the characterization, as well as in trying to puzzle out the several mysteries inherent in the tales. It also puts the reader in the at times awkward position of being addressed as the poet, perhaps leading the reader to question their own actions, ask themselves what it is they seek. A sense of suspense is laid down from the first few lines, where our speaker warns the poet:

“You’ll know the swamp witch when you see her, you can be sure of that … You can call me the Eaten One. You can take that name too, soon enough … You’re scared. Don’t be. It’s not such a bad thing, being eaten.”

The voice is wonderfully rich: both a bit folksy and warm and yet also darkly and ominously wise from experience. The folk tale nature of the style, and the separate nested stories — that of the rattan bride, of an assassin from years ago who also came to the swamp in search of a flower, of the poet now — work together seamlessly, each meshing with and enhancing the other in terms of theme and imagery. This is the second story in Edelstein’s world of gods-turned-stone-become-islands (the first was “The Shark God’s Child,” reviewed in our April 3, 2017 SFM column), and it only strengthens my desire after the first to see more of this fictional universe. ~Bill Capossere


“Outmoded Things” by Nancy Kress (2015, free sample story on Baen, anthologized in Multiverse: Exploring the Worlds of Poul Anderson)

In “Outmoded Things,” Nancy Kress pays tribute to Poul Anderson’s Nebula and Hugo award winning 1971 novelette/novella The Queen of Air and Darkness, exploring what happened after that story ends. To briefly recap and, necessarily, spoil Anderson’s story, since Kress’ story does as well: On the colony planet Roland, children have periodically gone missing. An investigation eventually discloses that a previously unknown intelligent species on Roland has limited mind-reading and -controlling abilities, including the ability to project illusions, using human superstitions and religious beliefs to make their reptilian bodies appear as beautiful beings like faeries or angels, attracting the children away from their homes and families.

As “Outmoded Things” begins, Dr. Luke Silverstein is engaged in therapy sessions with some of the children who have been recovered from the aliens (about half of those who disappeared have been found and returned). The older reclaimed children are having trouble readjusting to their life in the frontier town of Christmas Landing: Terry is angry at the natives for fooling him with illusions, while some others, like Carolyn, long to return to them. Carolyn insists on going by the name the natives gave her, Shadow-of-a-Dream, and has a disconcerting habit of running around naked. Gradually it becomes clear to Luke that the situation with the alien natives, and with the children and teens who had been living with them, is more complex than anyone had realized.

I wish I had been able to read Anderson’s story first, but Kress quickly grounded me in this world and opened up new avenues of thought, new ways of viewing what at first seemed straightforward. Among other things, Kress explores illusion and reality, and how there may sometimes be deeper truths in illusion … but also the danger of self-deception. There are some fascinating twists to this bittersweet tale. I think Anderson would approve. ~Tadiana Jones


“Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling (1998, originally published in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, republished 2011 and free at Lightspeed, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

I know “delightful” and “cyberpunk” are two words that rarely appear in the same sentence, but that’s what this short story is. We follow a day in the life of Tsuyoshi Shimizu, a young man living in Tokyo with his pregnant wife. He’s self-employed, making a fairly good living transferring old videos to new formats, and occasionally sharing older images that are of archival interest on the net.

The net machines would never pay for data, because the global information networks were noncommercial. But the net machines were very polite, and had excellent net etiquette. They returned a favor for a favor, and since they were machines with excellent, enormous memories, they never forgot a good deed.

Tsuyoshi moves through his day, periodically receiving anonymous gifts and advice from the net, and passing out random acts of kindness ― or taking more strategic actions ― when prompted by his handheld pokkecon device. Gradually it becomes apparent that there are forces tying him together with others in a mutual benefit society. It all comes to a hilarious boil as Tsuyoshi runs afoul of an American who is investigating and does not approve of this hidden gifting economy. But she’s taking on not only Tsuyoshi, but all the human and nonhuman forces that support him.

“Maneki Neko” is a humorous story, where we see the beneficial side of AI’s, the Internet gift economy, and dominant networks … at least from some people’s point of view. There’s just a little bit of an edge to the story, enough to make the reader question whether there might be some possible drawbacks to this system.

Maneki neko, which means “leaning cat” in English, is a popular Japanese cat figurine and tourist souvenir, usually having one paw upraised, depicting it beckoning for good fortune. It becomes very funny in the context of the story. Incidentally, “Maneki Neko” is referenced in the Hugo award winning 2016 short story “Cat Pictures Please,” and clearly served as an inspiration to that story. ~Tadiana Jones


The Last Machine in the Solar System by Matthew Isaac Sobin (2017, $3.99 on Kindle)

The eponymous “Last Machine” in the solar system is an intelligent, sophisticated robot, one well-built enough to survive for over two billion years. That’s long enough to observe the slow dying of our sun and to record the fate of humanity.

Jonathan is a 7 foot tall, humanoid robot, endowed by his creator, Nikolai, with the ability to feel a range of human emotions, including curiosity, sorrow, love and loneliness. Jonathan spends many years being taught by Nikolai, traveling and learning to observe the state of humanity. After Nikolai dies, Jonathan watches as humans colonize Mars, transporting most of Earth’s remaining animal life to that planet as Earth becomes less habitable due to the greenhouse effect and the sun’s increasing heat. As the sun slowly reddens and enlarges over the eons, Jonathan asks himself what humans will do.

There was so much time; surely this was humanity’s greatest ally. They had millions of years, maybe billions. And I wondered, how would they escape? Could they cast off the guillotine that revealed itself daily as the brightest object in the sky? … The crux of humanity’s riddle has always been whether they could disentangle themselves and their path from the energy source that gave rise to them in the first place.

It’s a thoughtful, elegiac tale, more focused on philosophical musings than on plot. This poignant memoir does make you think about humanity and our strengths and weaknesses. While I never felt fully engaged with this novelette — I think because nearly everything was told rather than shown, creating an emotional distance between the reader and the events — I did appreciate the ideas it explores. Jonathan is an AI with the deepest empathy for the human condition.

The Last Machine in the Universe won second place in an Inkshares contest, through which its publication was crowdfunded. The text is accompanied by several Jack Katz pencil sketches of Jonathan and his human inventor/mentor Nikolai. ~Tadiana Jones


“Apocalypse Scenario #683: The Box” by Mira Grant (2011, $1.99 on Kindle, $2.98 Audible)

A group of five friends who met when they were nerds in high school have been getting together every weekend to play a game they call The Apocalypse Game. They take turns designing ways to destroy the world and presenting their “Apocalypse Scenario” to the group for discussion. This time it’s Cole’s turn, but she’s not there. She sent a recording of her scenario to the group and, as they listen to it, they become increasingly concerned.

Almost immediately after this story began I could tell where it was going, but I liked the concept and was looking forward to seeing it play out. (Even though I thought it extremely unlikely that five smart adults who were friends in high school could still manage to meet weekly. Have they all been living in the same city as they went on to college, med/grad school, and jobs?)

The premise of “Apocalypse Scenario #683: The Box” is exciting but, because it’s so short, it doesn’t have the time it needs to build the tension the premise deserves. The foreshadowing is obvious and the denouement comes too soon. The primary character’s stated motives and actions did not seem correlated. This is a story that I would love to read in a longer format with the tension stretched out, and where we have time to witness the character’s backstory and thought process.

I listened to Hachette Audio’s version, which is 22 minutes long. Mira Grant narrates it herself, which is pretty cool. ~Kat Hooper

 


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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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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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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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5 comments

  1. The Kress story sounds wonderful and that’s the one I would want to read, but I’m always up for an adventure with Lady Trent.

    • Me too! It was a little bittersweet to read the final Lady Trent book, because I know there won’t be any more, but happily it’s a series I’ve enjoyed re-reading so far.

  2. I’d love to see your take on “Outmoded Things,” Marion! I believe you’d appreciate the story.

    Jana, I think you’ve confirmed what I suspected when I reviewed the Lady Trent story last year, which is that I’d probably love it if I had read some of the other Lady Trent books. I’ll have to look into those sometime.

    • If nothing else, check out the first book, A Natural History of Dragons. I think it would hit a lot of marks for you, genre-wise.

  3. Kat, it’s so cool that Mira Grant narrated her own story! (And the premise sounds interesting, too.)

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