SFM: Dickinson, Sanderson, Hill, Kelly, Valentine, Simak

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we’ve recently read. 

“Please Undo this Hurt” by Seth Dickinson (2015, free at Tor.com, Kindle version)

This is a really beautiful story about compassion, pain, and what it means to burn out. “Please Undo This Hurt” seems very realistic and not so much fantasy for a little while. I spent some time at the beginning waiting for the other shoe to drop. This “waiting” feeling didn’t last long, though, as the story holds up superbly and I became thoroughly engrossed.

“Please Undo This Hurt” has a set of definitive characters as well as a steady build to what I found to be a deeply satisfying conclusion. The only issue I can take with this story is a fairly personal one: I don’t know if I quite get it. I found the characters robust and the story engaging, but after the first read I did feel like I had missed a small something ― a clue or a hint ― something that would make it a truly powerful read. I’ve read it a couple more times now and I think perhaps it is just me, because it is really a gorgeous tale. ~ Skye Walker

Editor’s note: João Eira has previously reviewed this story and rated it 4.5 stars.


Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (2015, Kindle version currently discounted to $0.99). 2016 Hugo award nominee (novella).

As a Brandon Sanderson fan, I’ve been mulling over buying this novella for several weeks; when the price was dropped to 99 cents so the story could reach more Hugo voters, I quickly downloaded it.

Kairominas has conquered the entire world … or at any rate, what constitutes “his” world, where his magical powers, called “Lancing,” enables him to do almost everything except control the weather. But there are other things out of his control: he has a relentless enemy in a neighboring state who is an endless source of trouble. Worse, in Kai’s mind, is that the Wode Scroll, a device that carries communications from outside his world, has once again informed Kai that it is his duty, as one of the Liveborn, to meet up with a woman (to be chosen from a convenient list of compatible Liveborn) in order to have a child. Kai resists as long as he can, but when resistance becomes futile, he grumpily selects the woman at the bottom of the list and travels to another world or “State” to meet her. Trouble awaits, as well as Kai’s blind date.

For a world based on magic, there’s a lot of odd discussion about programming and hacking. Then comes the big reveal (only about 10 pages into the story): Kai’s ― and almost every other human’s ― brain was removed when he was a fetus and placed in a box, attached to simulation machinery, so that each person can be given an entire virtual world where they are the most important person in it. They are the Liveborn; all of the other people in their world are computer constructs, Machineborn. It’s not a secret from the disembodied humans, and the additional twist is that Kai (and presumably, most other humans) has no problem with this version of reality. He’s completely satisfied and delighted with his life. At least, that’s what he tells himself.

Kai has to travel to a magicless border state to meet his blind date/procreation partner, and Sanderson does an excellent job of describing the conflicting physical laws governing Kai’s magical State and other States where technology reigns, and the computer programming underlying everything. It’s an intriguing premise and a creative twist on the Matrix world scenario, and Sanderson handles it well. The characters have some lively and rather meta discussions about what constitutes reality, and whether it’s important to treat Machineborn as real people. I only hope that Sanderson chooses to write more stories in this world. ~Tadiana Jones

Editor’s note: Kat Hooper also reviewed Perfect State in our Feb. 22, 2016 SFM post and rated it 4.5 stars as well.


“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” by Joe Hill (2010, free at Nightmare Magazine [reprint, May 2016 issue], Kindle magazine issue)

Appropriately, I came across the link to this story on Twitter. It’s a story about a rather strained family road trip that is being spitefully recorded on social media. Our narrator, Blake, is a thoroughly unimpressed teenager who has some cutting and often quite pointed things to say about the internet, family, and her mother.

“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” utilizes the familiar construct of micro-update-based social media to present a narrative that puts the reader in a spectator role. On any given day there are stories and anecdotes being told over social media. This is presented as one of those stories. With this context and given that I’m a fairly active Twitter user, I enjoyed the micro-update format. It made the tone and pacing very familiar to me and, as I mentioned earlier, it cleverly situated me as a spectator to this small part of Blake’s life, just as she becomes a spectator at the circus.

I don’t read an awful lot of horror (this piece is more of a horror/fantasy) but when I do it is short pieces like this one. Though “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” didn’t leave me scared of my own shadow, it was a satisfyingly creepy short tale. ~ Skye Walker


“Itsy Bitsy Spider” by James Patrick Kelly (1997, free at Baen.com, Audible)

“Itsy Bitsy Spider,” originally published in 1997 in Asimov’s, was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon Awards. It won the Locus Award for short story in 1998. I listened to the 33 min long audio “Storypod” version that I obtained at Audible.

The story is about a woman named Jen who has not had a good relationship with her father, now elderly, since her parents divored decades ago. When it becomes necessary to visit him, Jen discovers that her father is being cared for by a humanoid robot. As she watches the interaction between her father and his caretaker, suddenly her entire view of her father, her mother, and herself, is changed. This is a creepy but touching story. ~Kat Hooper


“La beauté sans vertu” by Genevieve Valentine (April 2016, free on Tor.com, Kindle version).

In a near-future science fiction tale, high-fashion models for couture fashion houses routinely get their arm bones replaced with those from corpses of young teenagers, just for the slenderness of the bones, despite the fact that it leaves the tips of their fingers blackened. And that’s just one of the often torturous treatments that models are subjected to in the highly artificial fashion industry.

Maria, a 19 year old girl called the “Princess of Roses and Diamonds,” is a premier model of the House of Centifolia, and the key runway model for an upcoming fashion show. Centifolia owns her body ― she is basically a glamorous lifetime indentured servant ― but her mind harbors rebellious thoughts. Echoes of the “Toads and Diamonds” fairy tale appear, sink away in the glamorous muck of Maria’s world, and then resurface.

The one who was kind married a prince, and spent the rest of her life granting audiences and coughing up bouquets and necklaces for the guests. The one who refused was driven into the forest, where there was no one who wanted anything fetched, and she could spit out a viper any time she needed venom, and she never had to speak again.

This short story skewers the fashion industry and the inhumane way models are sometimes treated, extrapolating from some disturbing trends in the current industry and taking them to their extremes to highlight both the cruelty and the nonsensical and illusory nature of many aspects of this business. “La beauté sans vertu” is rather light on the speculative elements, but it is a haunting tale with lovely writing and some very pointed humor. The title, which translates as “Beauty without Virtue,” evokes John Keats’ memorable Romantic era poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” but here it is the models who have the death-pale faces and starved lips. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Street That Wasn’t There” by Clifford D. Simak (1941, free Kindle, add narration for $2.99)

It’s 1960 and Jonathan Chambers, a reclusive former university professor who was fired due to his unorthodox ideas about metaphysics, takes his usual walk around the neighborhood one evening. When he gets home, he realizes that his walk, the same walk he’s been taking for twenty years, took only 30 minutes instead of the usual 45. Something is definitely wrong. As he begins to look for clues, he discovers that a street in his neighborhood is missing, the architecture of his neighbors’ houses look distorted, and things are starting to get blurry. Is he going crazy? Or could it be that those unorthodox ideas he had so long ago weren’t as wrong-headed as his colleagues thought?

First published in Comet in July 1941, this short story, which was probably inspired by the huge number of deaths caused by the World Wars, is mildly entertaining and is slightly reminiscent of works by Edwin A. Abbott, Philip K. Dick, and H.P. Lovecraft. ~Kat Hooper


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SKYE WALKER, on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (but hanging around since 2007), is from Canada, where she is currently a University student studying Anthropology and Communications. When she isn’t reading or doing school work (or reading for school work) she can be found in one of three places: in a tent in the woods, amid a sea of craft supplies on a floor somewhere, or completing the task of finishing her ‘Must Watch’ movie list. Skye was practically born with a love of fantasy and science fiction (as her name might suggest). These days her favourite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Chris Wooding. Skye is in fact a Jedi (we know you were waiting for it).

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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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One comment

  1. Skye, I don’t always love Twitter, but I am really drawn to Twitter-fic for just the reason you mentioned (and Joe Hill obviously gets)– this illusion of seeing characters and interactions in real time. Only with a a plot and dramatic tension instead of a photo of the drink they got at Starbucks. I’m not judging, just saying.

    I can’t wait to read the Genevieve Valentine story!

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