SHORTS: Jingfang, Emrys, Plait, Norton

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. 

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu) (2015, free at Uncanny Magazine)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHao Jingfang’s novella “Folding Beijing” stayed with me long after I finished reading it. It wasn’t just the images of her fantastic city, where buildings fold down into cubes and once a day the entire city revolves like a tossed coin. It wasn’t just the descriptions of the lives of people in Third Space, Second Space and First Space. At the core of this story is an “ordinary” man, risking his freedom and maybe his life for money, and as his motives become clearer, I grew to care more and more about him.

Lao Dao works lives in Third Space and works in a waste management plant, sorting trash for recycling and reusing. He works a five hour shift; Third Space is “awake” and operating as a city for eight hours a day. When the Change comes, the 50 million people there enter cocoons and a drugged sleep and Third Space folds away. Second Space and First Space each have their active period. The city actually spins on an axis to bring First Space into the light of day. It is a crime to move between spaces without authorization – it’s considered border-jumping — but this is exactly what Lao Dao intends to do, to earn 100,000 yuan for delivering a message from a Second Spacer to a First Spacer.

The concept is fascinating, and Hao’s descriptions are striking. Peng, Lao Dao’s helper, is described like this: “His cheeks drooped like the jowls of a Shar-Pei,” and later she describes the writing of Yi Yan, the First Space woman, as  looking like, “… a string of slanted gourds.” Through Lao Dao’s eyes we see all three strata of the city. Like Lao Dao, we get the idea that the decision for this marvel of engineering was driven less by human or infrastructure needs and more by economics. Lao Dao returns home with an idea that he has learned something important about his life, but he is not interested in following up on it. His concern is raising enough money so that his daughter Tangtang can attend a kindergarten that teaches music and dance. I knew this from early in the story, but in the final paragraphs I learned something about Tangtang that made me reevaluate Lao Dao completely.

“Folding Beijing” braids together technology, economics, human dreams and emotions, sociology, strange imagery and powerful writing. Ken Liu’s shimmering translation adds to the power. Go read this. You can thank me later. ~Marion Deeds


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys (2014, free at Tor.com)

Any story that makes Jo Walton excited must at least be worth checking out. “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys is a Lovecraftian story, without the horror and the racial insensibilities and using the mythos of that prejudiced author to tell a story that deals with the experiences of those whom he despised. Aphra Marsh has the Old Ones’ blood and lost her parents when the government detained her family and those like her in the same concentration camps of the American-Japanese during World War II. She now lives in San Francisco with a Japanese family, working in a dusty bookstore while she recuperates from the atrocities committed against her and her kind, but just as she hasn’t forgotten the government and what they can do, the government has not forgotten her. The story also retroactively makes you think of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Chtullu”, at least “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse” part, differently. I had never read anything by Ruthanna Emrys before, but am now hungry to read more from her, and would be greatly pleased to read a novel featuring Miss Marsh and that world. ~João Eira


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“Deep” by Phil Plait (2009, free at Ficly)

“Deep” is an extremely short story, only about 185 words long, and I strongly recommend taking the minute or two that it takes to read it. It’s so extremely short that I feel a little silly giving it 5 stars and recommending it to others. But when I first read it, while I was discussing the plot of Natalie Babbitt’s classic middle grade fantasy Tuck Everlasting with some friends, “Deep” kind of blew my mind, making me consider some logical implications of deathlessness that had never occurred to me before. Several months I first read it, I still think about it when I think about the idea of eternal youth, and whether you should go for it if it were ever offered to you. In theory it sounds so good, especially if you can work in a few guarantees about never getting sick or injured and so forth! ~Tadiana Jones


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“People of the Crater” by Andre Norton (1947, free on Kindle)

“People of the Crater” was Andre Norton’s first published work and was released using the pseudonym Andrew North. It’s a lost world fantasy about a pilot named Garin who discovers two warring ancient civilizations below the ice in Antarctica. The Ancient Ones are the good guys and the Black Ones are, of course, the bad guys. Garin is asked to save Thrala, the beautiful maiden, from the Black Ones, which for some reason he is happy to do.

I like many of Andre Norton’s stories, but this one was pretty rough, which isn’t too surprising since it was her first published story. The characters are shallow, the plot is weak, the action is confusing, the archaic prose is unpleasant, the dialogue is stilted, and the romance is insipid. Finally, while I understand that Andre Norton was pretending to be a man writing for a male audience, I can’t help but wish that her adventure story didn’t sound so much like those of her contemporaries. She’s got the same sort of handsome male adventurer who beats all the dark-skinned bad guys while saving the passive woman with the heaving breasts. I advise you to skip this. ~Kat Hooper


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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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JOÃO EIRA, one of our guests, is a student at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, one of the oldest universities in the world, where he studies Physics and Economics. Having spent his formative years living in the lush vistas of Middle Earth and the barren nothingness in a galaxy far far away, he has grown to love filling his decreasing empty bookshelf space with fantasy and science fiction books. For him a book’s utmost priority should be the story it is trying to tell, though he can forgive some mistakes if its characters are purposeful and the worldbuilding imaginative. A book with no story can have no redeeming quality though. João probably spends more time fantasizing about books than doing productive things.

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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 and conducts brain research 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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3 comments

  1. Marion, “Folding Beijing” sounds fantastic. I’ll check it out later this week.

    I’m so glad you liked “The Litany of Earth,” João! The story really creeps up on you, and I’d love to read more stories by Emrys which are set in that world.

    Tadiana, I’m surprised by how good “Deep” was, despite its length.

    “People of the Crater” is, unfortunately, icky. :( I’m not surprised you didn’t like it, Kat. (But I am loving this new feature!)

  2. When I read “Folding Beijing” a couple of weeks ago – I think it was on Marion’s recommendation! – I thought it was a 4-star read. But it’s one of those stories that’s sticking with me, and kind of haunting me, and for that I agree with your 5 stars, Marion.

    Kat, for some reason your awful description of Norton’s first book is tempting me to download it and check it out. WHY?? I have so many better things I should be reading. *valiantly trying to resist the temptation…*

  3. Eeek! Andre Norton was the polar star of my childhood reading, so I won’t sully the memory with THE PEOPLE OF THE CRATER… unless it lends itself well to an amateur staged reading with lots of tequila and chips-‘n’-salsa.

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