SFM: Chiang, Liu, Sanderson, Kinney, Seybold

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. 

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (1998, originally anthologized in Starlight 2, reprinted in Stories of Your Life and Others). 2000 Nebula award winner (novella) and 1999 Sturgeon award winner.

Being more of a fantasy lover than a sci-fi fan, I still hadn’t read the short-story superstar Ted Chiang. Keen to see what I’ve been missing, and possibly throwing myself in at the deep end, I read “Story of Your Life.” Boy, what an experience it was. Four and half stars for its topsy-turvy brilliance and half a star docked (admittedly unfairly) because I’m not clever or patient enough to appreciate some of the scientific nuances.

“Story of Your Life” is narrated by Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who records her work attempting to learn the language and written form of a group of heptapod aliens. Concurrently she records snippets of her daughter’s life (the “your” of the title).

What really struck me about this story was how intensely seriously Chiang treats his subject matter. On reading, I really believed that if aliens do choose to communicate with us this story is an accurate representation of what could come next. In keeping with this straight-faced approach, Chiang does not spare his readers details that another author might bypass for fear of intimidating. There is a great deal of technical detail regarding the language of the heptapods and Louise’s attempts to unravel their writing. There is also a sprinkling of physics, which was where I had to work hard to keep up. Surprisingly, none of this put me off.

The other stand-out feature is the way that Chiang plays with tenses ― the real cleverness of which is only revealed at the remarkable conclusion. More generally, the intertwined stories keep the reader engaged as we explore Louise as a linguist, a mother, a lover and, ultimately, a changed woman. This mingling of themes, the professional and the personal, results in a tingling tale that I suspect has sunk in rather deeply.

Because short stories are such fleeting pleasures, the test for me is not simply whether a story is good or bad, but also whether I remember it in a month’s time. Ted Chiang does not create forgettable stories. ~Katie Burton


“State Change” by Ken Liu (2004, free on the author’s website, originally anthologized in Polyphony, vol. 4, also collected in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories)

Rina lives in a version of our world where each person’s soul is embodied from birth in a physical object. Rina’s soul materialized at her birth in the form of an ice cube, and Rina has spent her life assiduously protecting her ice cube from melting, to preserve her soul and her life. Her ice cube soul has to remain physically close to her body, so Rina carries around portable refrigerated units, and keeps multiple refrigerators in her apartment, to keep her frozen soul from melting and killing her in the process.

A chill surrounds Rina, and no one has ever gotten to know her well, except perhaps her former college roommate Amy, whose soul was a pack of cigarettes that Amy would recklessly smoke every so often. Rina quietly works her office job during the day and stays home in her apartment at night, reading biographies of interesting people, to lose herself in their lives: Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose soul was a candle; T.S. Eliot, whose soul was the grains of coffee in a tin.

To measure out a life with coffee spoons, Rina thought, must have seemed dreadful sometimes. Perhaps that was why Eliot had no sense of humor.

 

But a soul in a coffee tin was also lovely in its own way. It enlivened the air around him, made everyone who heard his voice alert, awake, open and receptive to the mysteries of his difficult, dense verse. Eliot could not have written, and the world would have understood, Four Quartets without the scent of Eliot’s soul, the edge it gave to every word, the sharp tang of having drunk something deeply significant.

Then one day a new young man shows up at Rina’s office, and Rina’s quiet life, protecting her fragile soul, no longer satisfies her.

If you can roll with the central conceit, “State Change” is an engaging and insightful story. Beyond the obvious symbolism of the main idea, which Ken Liu explores in various delightful ways, I love the way he ties in the lives of famous people, whose genius is reflected in the way they handle and use their souls, as well as the subplot concerning Amy, Rina’s college roommate, who still has a place in Rina’s heart. It’s a gentle tale, told with affectionate sympathy. ~Tadiana Jones


Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson (Feb. 2017, $2.99 Kindle version)

In an alternate version of the United States, the city of Clipperton has cutting edge technology built underneath it that enables those who control it to exactly recreate a particular day in that city’s recent history: a Snapshot of that day, complete with exact duplicates of all of the places and people that were in the city at that time. Unless an outside force intervenes, the events of that day will be precisely replicated within the Snapshot. The police force assigns particular cops to Snapshot duty, inserting them into this re-created day in order to investigate crimes. They are the only real people in the city; all others are duplicates, or “dupes,” who are indistinguishable from actual people until the Snapshot is turned off, when they and everything else in the city will be reconstituted back to raw matter and energy.

Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz are Snapshot cops who have washed out of regular police duties for different reasons. They begin their day in New Clipperton, a recreation of May 1, 2018, ten days before the current day, by investigating a shooting, following the criminal to try to find the murder weapon. They have several hours to kill before the next event they are assigned to investigate on that day. Instead of going to a safehouse, Davis and Chaz decide to investigate a mysterious event Davis had heard about, where multiple squad cars gathered at a scene, but that is oddly absent from the precinct’s records. Their unofficial investigation leads them to a mass murder scene that they are ordered to ignore … but don’t.

The intriguing setting is the jewel of Snapshot. Brandon Sanderson takes the science fictional idea of being able to create an exact duplicate of a day in the recent past of a New York-like city, adds a multi-layered detective story to it, and then increases the complexity by using the personal strengths and shortcomings of the detective characters as a vital element of the plot. The technology has realistic limitations: for example, the actions of the real-life characters in the Snapshot world can cause deviations from what actually happened on that day in the real world, which can ruin the evidentiary value of their investigation. Sanderson touches on, but leaves unresolved, the ethical dilemma of creating a world of thinking, feeling people and then extinguishing them at the end of the day, with the flick of a switch.

The mass murder plotline wasn’t entirely convincing to me, with the detectives making some intuitive leaps in understanding the dubiously grounded motivations of the killer, whose ability to ensnare his victims was given short shrift. But the story was otherwise convincingly real, hitting me with a couple of surprises along the way that I hadn’t foreseen (my bad; the clues were there), but which in retrospect were entirely fitting puzzle pieces for this SF mystery novella. ~Tadiana Jones


“Meltwater” by Benjamin C. Kinney (2016, free at Strange Horizons) I met Benjamin C. Kinney at the Hugo Awards last summer. We’re both neuroscientists, so I tended to show up at the events where he was either on the panel or in the audience. Noticing this, I made a note to check out his work when I got home, pretty certain it’d be just the sort of fiction I like best. I was right, of course.

“Meltwater” is Kinney’s first sale and it appears in Strange Horizons. I had to read it a couple of times to catch everything. The story, which is based on this beautiful image, takes place on a far-future, post-human Earth which, as far as we know, is only inhabited by a couple of cyborg-like beings, who are able to distribute their consciousness by cloning themselves. They still have plenty of human characteristics and even use names and gendered pronouns to describe themselves. Percel’s clones spend their time trying to repair various locations on Earth while Emlune lives in an icy church and maintains it. When we meet them, Percel has come to visit Emlune because one of Emlune’s clones has died and Percel, who loves Emlune, wants a replacement.

I loved the atmosphere of this story — the frozen desolate castle-like church situated at the rocky bottom of an icy waterfall. (I wish Kinney had spent a few more sentences setting this exotic scene.) The story has a sense of tragedy that I found moving. What has happened to Earth? What has happened to humanity? Our “traditional” human bodies have evolved past what we know.

This sad, dreary story about clones on a ruined Earth is an acknowledgement and celebration of the way that the unpleasant feelings we deal with — such as pain, loss, yearning, loneliness, and unrequited love — are intimately linked with the opposite feelings that make the human life worth living. ~Kat Hooper


“Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold (Feb. 2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)

The best thing about “Gravity’s Exile” is the setting — a giant “worldwall,” an apparently endless, massive cliff divided vertically into various zones, cultures, etc. The slope widens in places into large steps or terraces, allowing for villages and maybe even cities that hardened adventuring types can travel to by the arduous task of climbing down (or up, though that’s obviously more problematic). As one might assume, travel is apparently relatively rare.

The story opens with the main character, Jeone Serrica, fending off a venomous wall lizard as tall as she is high. This will actually turn out to be the safest of her encounters in this story, which has her entering a step village devoid of men and threatened by gigantic intelligent birds.

I liked the uniqueness of the situation, which offers the potential of a longer, episodic structure (it reminds me a bit of the generation ship stories with separate habitats/cultures as one traveled through the ship). And Jeone could be an engaging character through such a longer work; she is resourceful, tough and has a hinted-at complex past. The other characters in the story, unfortunately, are pretty two-dimensional, and the encounter is a bit perfunctory in its flowering and resolution and has some clunky, talky exposition. In the end it’s a pretty simple adventure story with an intriguing setting, some nice detail, solid prose style, relatively flat characterization, and a somewhat disappointing close that resolves the story but points to the possibility of more of Jeone’s adventures. ~Bill Capossere


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KATIE BURTON, who joined us in September 2015, is a solicitor in London and now an aspiring journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren’t human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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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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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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5 comments

  1. These seem really stunning, especially the first ones. I’ll have to check them out. Have been putting off looking into Paper Menagerie, but I guess I just have to get to it :)

    • I think I’m convinced now, too. Ken Liu has just moved up on my list of reading priorities. The question for me is whether I get it on audio.

      Kat, I just went to read the review of the full book, and I noticed in the comments you were going to listen to the audio version at some point. Have you had a chance, or is it still in your to-read stack?

  2. Evelina, at least three of the stories in Liu’s Paper Menagerie collection are free online, the one reviewed above, “The Paper Menagerie” and “Mono No Aware.” I’ve reviewed them all. If you haven’t read much of Liu’s short fiction yet, I’d recommend finding and reading them to see if you like his style.

    I’ve really liked almost everything I’ve read by him, and one of these days I’m going to bite the bullet and buy a copy of the collection.

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