SHORTS: Buckell, Scalzi, Kanakia, Novakova

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.

“A World to Die For” by Tobias Buckell (Jan. 2018, free at Clarkesworld, Issue 136, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Be warned: “A World to Die For” can be read as a message story, because the premise involves multiple realities with greater and lesser degrees of global warming. This does not get in the way of action and adventure, a study of personality, a collection of complicated characters, wonderful gadgets and a several types of suspense, ranging from the shoot-em-up kind to the more puzzling, who-can-you-trust suspense of a good spy thriller. In all cases, the stakes are real.

The story opens in media res as our second-person narrator, a member of the group of raiders who call themselves customs agents, harry a convoy across the blighted desert that was once the Chicago area. When they bring the convoy to a stop the tables are turned. They are taken captive by a group searching for a woman named Chenra, which is the name of our protagonist.

Chenra, or a version of her (one goes by “Che”), is being hunted across realities, and there is more than one version of her. She is loyal to the raiders who took her in and saved her life, and hesitant to trust the people who are pursing the various versions of her. Soon, though, she hears a story about a reality where humans heeded the warnings and reversed global warming: an Edenic garden world. Those people, though, are not peaceful. They fight to protect what they have. There is a world worth dying for in this story and Chenra’s challenge is to decide which one it is.

Buckell’s novels have been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus Awards. The choice of second-person is risky because it is a gimmick and it can go badly wrong. It’s in the right hands here. Buckell makes it work and it adds immediacy to the story. The action sequences are great and the complexities unfolded at just the right pace. It is a good action story and it kept me thinking until the very end, and after. ~Marion Deeds


“After the Coup” by John Scalzi (2008, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

In this short story, set in the world of Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR series, a human diplomatic group from the Clarke spaceship is trying to negotiate a treaty with a small but belligerent alien species, the Korba. It’s not going well. Since a recent military coup on their planet, the Korba are now intent on expanding to new planets. Humanity’s Colonial Defense Force actually thinks that’s fine … as long as the Korba expand in the direction of enemy planets, not ours. But before they accept that restriction, the Korba insist on proof of humanity’s military prowess, particularly their superhuman soldiers that the Korba have heard about. This part will make much more sense if you’ve read at least the first book in this series, Old Man’s War. If you haven’t, well, knowing that humanity has developed a way to genetically engineer soldiers with superhuman strength (among other qualities) will see you through.

It just so happens that there is only one superhuman soldier on the diplomatic spaceship, Lieutenant Harry Wilson. The problem is that Harry is a technician, not a trained fighter, but time is short and the humans have no better options than Harry for the ritualized one-on-one combat display that the Korba are insisting on. What develops is a tricky mix between a sensitive diplomatic mission and hand-to-hand combat between Harry and one of the Korba, liberally spiced with humor.

“Tell the judge that you’re my second.”

 

“What? Harry, I can’t,” Schmidt said. “I’m supposed to be sitting with the Ambassador.”


“And I’m supposed to be in a bunk on the
Clarke reading the first part of The Brothers Karamazov,” Harry said. “Clearly this is a disappointing day for both of us. Suck it up, Hart.”

“After the Coup” isn’t profound, but it’s an amusing and highly imaginative story, and I enjoyed Harry’s snarky personality and world-weary view of politics and military policies.

It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this to Fredric Brown’s “Arena,” a well-known and anthologized 1944 short story that also features one-on-one combat between a human and a highly unusual alien. In both stories the fate of humanity may be riding on the outcome of the fight, but “Arena” takes a dead serious approach while “After the Coup” is far more lighthearted, though with some serious undertones. ~Tadiana Jones

Editor’s note: Jason Golomb also reviewed “After the Coup” in our Oct. 19, 2015 SHORTS column and rated it 5 stars.


“A Coward’s Death” by Rahul Kanakia (Feb. 2018, free at Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 93, Kindle magazine issue)

An Emperor declares that all first-born sons (our student narrator is one such) will be conscripted as slaves for ten years to build a statue. A fellow student of the narrator, Tiktus, debates their teacher on the Emperor’s right to do this. The next day, as the narrator watches, Tiktus refuses to join the collected first-born and the soldiers begin to kill Tiktus’ family members one at a time.

I liked what Kanakia is exploring here: the responsibility of a cowed populace in their own oppression, the philosophy of “just accept,” the individual versus the many, when dissent is worth sacrifice (and whose sacrifice), hypocrisy (Tiktus owns a household slave), and the way the title can be read in more than one light. On the downside, I didn’t care for the vernacular style or the detailed violence, and I would have liked more than just “putting this out there.” But this is a disturbing story that offers some thought-provoking material. ~Bill Capossere


“Deep Down in the Cloud” by Julie Novakova (February 2018, free at Clarkesworld, Issue 137)

This SF short story is set in a near-future version of our world, a few years after a freak cycle of solar storms knocks out satellite communications, freely available internet and other technology and triggers a slide into what seems to be a milder form of dystopia. Mariana, Hector and Iku are on an illegal, hazardous mission to destroy the deep sea datacenter of Augur, the massive corporation that now controls society. The multiple flashbacks illuminate Mariana’s feelings toward this new Augur-controlled world and her willingness to use her hacking abilities when Iku offers her and Hector the job, as well as Mariana’s and Hector’s speculation on who, or what, Iku is. “Frogman” may not mean the same thing in this future world as it does in ours.

I liked this story rather better than Bill did (see his review below). The world-building is admittedly slight, but the underwater setting compelled my attention, particularly in combination with the futuristic high tech protections surrounding Augur’s data center. Toward the end, though, the story, like the water, gets a little murky. Julie Novakova intriguingly references Iku-Turso, a mythical Finnish sea monster, but doesn’t delve deeply enough into the myth or its relevance to her story to give it any lasting resonance. ~Tadiana Jones
_________

This story is set in a near-future dystopian Earth whose satellites/telecommunications were taken down by solar activity so that our main character Marian Aguayro has only fond memories of “net neutrality, constant quick access to information, and reliable communication.” She and two others are trying to break an underwater server/data station belonging to Augur, apparently the Big Bad of this “unobtrusive dystopia.”

This one didn’t do a lot for me. The story has a series of nested flashbacks and while I’m all for non-linear structure, I’m not sure it adds much here and couldn’t really figure out its purpose. Characterization was thin, especially given some particular choices, and the world-building felt flimsy as well. The underwater scenes, however, were nicely detailed. ~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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4 comments

  1. Marion, I read “A World to Die For” based on your recommendation. I’m always a little hesitant about message fiction, but the story here is strong enough to stand on its own feet. It’s a very good, solid story.

  2. You can always suck me in with great action.

  3. I also agree with you on the unusually effective use of second-person narration in AWTDF. Usually that’s a death knell for me.

    • Buckell is so good that he makes it look easy, but second-person really worked in that story.

      “After the Coup;” Harry Wilson is one of my favorite characters from the Old Man’s War universe, and Scalzi’s humor is always welcome.

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