SFM: Gilman, Levine, Johnson, Liu, Weir

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.

“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (April 2016, free at Clarkesworld magazine, Kindle magazine issue)

In “Touring with the Alien,” an unnamed alien species has landed impenetrable bubble ships on Earth and is sending out “translators,” apparently-human people who claim that they were abducted as children and raised by the aliens. The translators claim that the aliens do not pose a threat to humans … nor, indeed, are they very interested in humans at all. Gilman’s narrator, Avery, gets a chance to understand them a little more when she is hired as a driver to take an alien and his human companion on a drive around the US.

For most of the story, Avery only has contact with the translator, Lionel. Since he has been raised by aliens, he doesn’t understand a lot about the world, including food, trees, and jokes. They see each other, at first, as different species. But through their discussions, they learn what they have in common. And Avery learns more about the aliens behind her odd, aimless road trip.

With this story, Gilman contemplates consciousness and identity, loss and love, the borders between the self and the Other. When Avery and Lionel visits a graveyard, they are both distraught for different reasons. Somehow they are able to reach across the boundaries that separate them and comfort each other. Gilman describes this moment of compassion as “[t]wo people trapped in their own brains, and the only crack in the wall was empathy.” By the end of the story, both Avery and Lionel learn that loving something, nurturing something, is worthwhile. ~Kate Lechler

Editor’s note: Kat Hooper also reviewed “Touring with the Alien” in our SFM post on April 11, 2016, giving it a 4 star rating.


Discards by David D. Levine (March 2016, free at Tor.com, Kindle version)

Discards is a novelette set in the WILD CARDS shared universe, an alternative history in which an airborne alien virus was released in New York City after WWII and from there spread worldwide. The virus kills 90% of the humans who come into contact with it and mutates the rest, with 9% (the “Jokers”) developing useless, often repulsive, deformities and just 1% (the “Aces”) gaining superpowers.

Discards takes place in Rio de Janeiro, among the outcasts of society. Tiago, a fifteen-year-old homeless boy who gets by collecting and reselling recyclable materials, wakes up one morning from a feverish sleep to find that he’s contracted the Wild Card virus. It has disfigured Tiago, giving him a patchwork of different skin colors and mismatched features. Rejected by everyone around him, Tiago loses even the small amount of security he had in life, and heads off to try to make a new life with other Jokers, or curinga. It’s a desperate life, in a world of drugs and violence, but when Tiago discovers that the Wild Card virus has also gifted him with a new ability, new possibilities begin to open up for him.

Levine’s description of the grim life of a street kid in the slums of Rio hits home, with the desperation and the lawlessness underscored by the careless, wealthy tourists who flit in and out of the area. Tiago tries to live an honorable life as best he can, driven to theft but avoiding the greater evil of drug running. His superpower, as he begins to more fully develop it, has a poignant connection to his life as a catadore, a collector of recycled materials, as well as to his status as a person discarded by society, but Tiago learns to make the most of the hand he’s been dealt. ~Tadiana Jones


“Coyote Invents the Land of the Dead” by Kij Johnson (March 2016, free at Clarkesworld magazine, Kindle magazine issue)

In this story, the trickster coyote god Dee is looking for her lost love, Jace, down on the night beach where the dead wash up as shells. Two of her sisters—Wren and Chena, a wren and a dog—accompany her, each of them with her own secret search in mind. Once on the beach, Dee realizes she’ll have to cross the ocean to the other shore to see if Jace’s shell has washed up there. And when her sisters join her on this journey, giving up their lives, they also create a moon for the land of the dead, and tides.

Like most myths, the plot of this story is fairly simple. What I loved about it was the language. Johnson creates neologisms left and right, hyphenating two words that never belonged together before and then suddenly, Bam! There they are, perfect. The voice of it mimics oral storytelling in a way that creeps into your head. Take this, for instance:

The path: a startle-start, and a slip-stumble long middle, and then a dead-end; just like life.

It’s just a description of Dee’s journey down to the beach, but the language is rich and allusive and contains a little takeaway at the end.

The other thing I love about this story is its heart. Coyote-Dee is narcissistic; she races off to solve problems before she’s thought them through. She curses all the time, starting many of her sentences “Well, f***” (which seems to be her response to most of life during this story). But she’s so human and helpless, and her sisters so loving and loyal, that I can’t help but adore all three of them. More myths in this world, please, Kij Johnson. ~Kate Lechler


“Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” by Cixin Liu (2015, free at Clarkesworld Magazine, Kindle magazine issue)

This delightful little story is about a girl named Yuanyuan, who has been fascinated by soap bubbles since she was a baby. As she develops, her parents and teachers are sometimes exasperated with her obsession and try to steer her toward more productive and meaningful pursuits. Yuanyan is smart and does well in school, but her father thinks she’s impractical and lacks a sense of duty.

As you read about the troubled town where Yuanyuan’s family lives, you don’t have to be a particularly astute reader to see where this story is going. It’s fairly obvious, but that didn’t dampen my enjoyment at all. I loved the story’s sense of wonder and whimsy as well as its message that learning is fun, that children’s creativity and imagination should be fostered rather than squelched. Best of all is the idea that massive problems can be solved when people with different skills and personalities work together. There is also a lovely sense of familial love throughout this uplifting tale.

“Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” requires a willingness to suspend disbelief, but most readers will be happy to comply. I listened to Kate Baker read the story in Clarkesworld’s podcast. ~Kat Hooper

Editor’s note: Marion Deeds also reviewed “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” in our SFM post on January 11, 2016, rating it 3.5 stars.


“Diary of an AssCan: A Mark Watney Short Story” by Andy Weir (2015, free on WHSmith website)

“Diary of an AssCan” (i.e., astronaut candidate) is a short story prequel to Weir’s bestseller, The Martian. Mark Watney, in his earlier diary-keeping days, describes his feelings on being chosen for the Mars mission, some of the training he and the rest of his crewmates are put through, and his last thoughts prior to launch.

This brief story is mildly interesting if you liked The Martian and are interested in the astronaut prep process, and what might go through an astronaut’s head during that time. Mark Watney kind of blathers on; there’s some technical discussion of orbital science and some psychological testing of the crew, and a few thoughts that are amusing and rather ironic if you know what happens later:

My crewmates and I were chosen partially because the psych team figured we’d work well together. And they were right. We’ve been through rigorous training, travel, sleep deprivation, and constant fatigue together. It’s made us stronger and brought us closer together. We’re like war buddies. We would literally die for each other.

But I swear to God if I see any of them in the next few days, I’ll strangle them.

This is not a complete story in any real sense; it’s more like an outtake or deleted scene, and adds only minimally to our understanding of Mark Watney’s character and the background of his Mars mission. There’s not much point to it, but fans of The Martian may find it worth the short time it takes to read it. ~Tadiana Jones


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KATE LECHLER, with us since May 2014, 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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4 comments

  1. Tadiana, thanks for the link to the Mark Watney story! I think it would have worked better as the introductory chapters to The Martian than as an auxiliary story, but that’s just my personal. :)

  2. Tadiana, I already had the WILD CARDS story open in my browser to read before I read this column.

    • What a coincidence! I’ll be interested in your take on it. I noticed you had read some of the novels set in this universe, which I haven’t (at least not yet).

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