SHORTS: Cho, Stueart, Palmer, Kingfisher

Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few excellent stories, including two of the recently announced Hugo nominees, that we wanted you to know about.

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho (2018, free to read online or download at Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog). 2019 Hugo award nominee (novelette).

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again, by Zen Cho, is a Hugo-nominated novelette about an imugi, a Korean creature who isn’t quite a dragon yet, but desperately wants to ascend to Heaven and join that august celestial species. Such a transformation doesn’t happen quickly, of course, and certainly never without the proper effort, so Byam waits thousands of years, trying once a millennium, and failing spectacularly each time (usually accompanied by hoots of laughter from nearby humans who have no idea what’s happening). Not exactly dignified or encouraging.

Then Byam encounters Leslie, a human whose life is at a crisis point — recently dumped by her boyfriend, recently failed her astrophysics PhD, and all-around feeling pretty low about herself and her future. Byam attempts another ascension, fails, and that inglorious moment is accidentally captured in Leslie’s hiking selfie. Leslie interprets the miraculous sighting as proof that things are going to work out for her; Byam, disguised as a celestial fairy, tracks her down, intent on gaining revenge (probably by eating Leslie) for capturing the moment Byam crash-landed on a mountain. But Leslie’s studies on the evolution of galaxies mirror Byam’s own studies of the Way, and the two find they have much in common, including their stumbles and missteps along the path of life.

“Sometimes,” [Byam] said, “you try really hard and it’s not enough. You put in all you’ve got and you still never get where you thought you were meant to be. But at least you tried. Some people never try. They resign themselves to bamboozling monks and devouring maidens for all eternity.”

Bamboozling monks doesn’t actually sound all that bad, but what do I know? Byam’s and Leslie’s gradually-intertwining lives and experiences draw them closer together, through all kinds of problems and setbacks, and the ways in which they support one another enrich their lives immeasurably. Cho’s take on the rusty old “if at first…” proverb is sweet without becoming saccharine, and her approach to the eternal problem of what to do with failure is both encouraging and honest, acknowledging that the path you set out upon early in life doesn’t always end up where you thought it might. This is a story I’ll be keeping in my back pocket for whenever I need a reminder that, sometimes, just giving forth your best effort is the hardest and best thing. Highly recommended. ~Jana Nyman

Editor’s note: Zen Cho has also recently published a short story sequel to this novelette, called “Head of a Snake, Tail of a Dragon,” which is available on the author’s website.


“Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Stueart (2019, Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine)

Mr. Dance is a recluse who uses a wheelchair, and Eric, a student switching from football to music, comes to him for tutoring. When Eric unpacks his clarinet, Mr. Dance recognizes it; it used to be his, and it, like him, used to be magic. He sees no familiar glow from the instrument, though. Mr. Dance lost his Shaft of Moonlight under traumatic circumstances, the same time his legs were damaged, but surely he can get it away from this awkward boy who doesn’t even understand jazz, can’t he?

Jerome Stueart’s story is filled with longing, loss, love and music. The history of Mr. Dance, his circle of friends, and the brutal evangelist who stole the Shaft from him decades ago unfolds smoothly, interspersed with scenes of the fumbling Eric trying to learn jazz. Although Mr. Dance is focused on gaining back his instrument, he can’t help but see that Eric is struggling too; as Eric says, he is good at football but doesn’t love it; he loves music but fears he isn’t good at it. Both characters feel trapped by circumstances and by their own choices.

The secondary characters, like the nymph Patti and the band members we meet at the end, are well-drawn. Mr. Dance’s origins are explained in the story’s title, but they truly don’t matter. This is a story about mentorship, loss, and redemption … and ultimately the power of music. The fact that the music embraced by the fauns, satyrs and nymphs is not some ethereal pan-pipe arrangement but actual jazz makes the story sweeter and more wicked. Recommended for people who like mild sexual innuendo (the banter in the bar, you guys!), great stories about teachers and students, and music. ~Marion Deeds


“Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer (2018, free at Clarkesworld, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue).

Joe is a human soldier, browbeaten by his unfeeling mother and dejected to the point of hoping that he’ll die in the war for control of the Ohio territory. Joe’s been injured in combat multiple times, and the damaged parts of his body have been replaced by “smart” cybernetic units. Most of this story is comprised of an ongoing discussion between the various cybernetic parts of Joe’s body, who are conniving to try to keep Joe alive despite his efforts to throw himself into deadly danger.

Suzanne Palmer wrote one of my favorite stories of 2017, the Hugo award-winning novelette “The Secret Life of Bots,” and the communications between the quirky cybernetic units in “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” echoes the interactions between the bots in that story. This ongoing chatter between Joe’s artificial parts, led by his Cybernetic Cerebral Control or CC unit (even though Joe’s spleen unit claims seniority), is delightfully humorous, especially when (as frequently happens) the units get quarrelsome.

[SPLEEN::UNIT] I object to that unilateral action.

 

[HEART] Of course you do. What do you even do except complain?

 

[SPLEEN::UNIT] And you don’t object? Of course not, you gutless—

 

[INTESTINAL::TRACT REPLACEMENT::LOWER] HEY.

 

[CC] Everyone! Joe needed a win, and we all know it. His morale is terrible, and it is in the best interests of us as a whole that his attitude and outlook improve.

Ironically, Joe is actually quite talented in the kitchen, where he’s able to fix machines that have been cranking out inedible army food, but he feels driven to do his part on the battlegrounds in what seems to be a pointless, unending combat. There’s poignancy in the downtrodden Joe’s desire to be a good soldier vs. how useless he actually is on the battlefield, and in the tension between Joe’s death wish and the maneuvering of his cybernetic units to prevent his demise. ~Tadiana Jones

Editor’s note: Marion Deeds also reviewed “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” in our November 12, 2018 SHORTS column and rated it 5 stars.


“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher (2018, free at Uncanny magazine, $3.03 Kindle magazine issue). 2019 Hugo award nominee (short story).

A half-dozen faerie men, a bull selkie and a black pooka in the shape of a horse (except when he wants more beer) morosely gather around a campfire to commiserate. Each of them has a history with one Rose MacGregor, a lusty human who has unexpectedly turned the tables on them. Human women are supposed to pine after them, right? But somehow Rose never got that message.

“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” is a short but very amusing sex comedy type of story (lots of innuendos in this one!). There’s a running joke about Rose’s lost sheep that adds to the humor, and as the men around the campfire share their stories, one can’t help but admire Rose’s strength of character while grinning at her disregard for the feelings of the guys … most of whom were planning to treat her worse than she treated them, so there’s that.

“Excuse me! I am a pooka! We drown people! None of this waiting around for them to die of a broken heart! We are efficient!”

 

“Yer a bunch of cads,” said the selkie. “At least we don’t go killin’ the ladies after.”

It’s a one-joke kind of tale, but a clever twist on the standard trope, and well-told (as always) by T. Kingfisher. ~Tadiana Jones


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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 now makes her home 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 James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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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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