SFM: Jingfang, Rivera, Tolkien, Vajra

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.

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu (2015, free at Uncanny Magazine, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). Nominated for 2016 Hugo award (novelette).

Lao Dao, a humble man who works in a waste processing plant in “Third Space” Beijing, sorting recyclable trash, finds a bottle with a message offering what for Lao Dao is a fortune, to take a message from a man in Second Space to a woman he loves who lives in First Space. Travel between the three areas is dangerous and illegal, but Lao Dao, desperate to earn enough money to pay for his young daughter’s education at a decent school, is determined to make the trip.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Beijing literally folds and unfolds as well: the city has been completely rebuilt, with huge sections of ground that turn upside down every 24 hours. The inhabitants of each space are put into a drugged sleep while their part of the city folds up and disappears underground. This increases Beijing’s ability to support a large population … and, disturbingly, also increases the physical and emotional separation between the haves, have-nots, and “have-somes.” First Space has by far the lowest population and most of the wealth; it also gets the largest amount of time above ground (24 hours in every 48), while Second Space, filled with white collar workers, gets 16 hours and the underclass in Third Space only gets 8 hours.

The setting is the real jewel of this science fiction novelette, a clear symbol of the economic and social differences between the classes and the lack of fairness in the way economic benefits and even life itself have been parceled out. With such a dramatic setting, the story itself is far more understated than one might expect — even the exciting scenes have a quietness to them, and every time the tension ramps up it soon ramps right back down again. Rather than pursue a more dramatic story, Hao Jingfan chose to focus on the domestic details of life. As she mentions in her interview with Uncanny Magazine, “The characters themselves care more about things that touch their daily lives: family, love, power, and wealth, but a reader can see the fundamental inequity of their world.”

It’s a thought-provoking story that melds well with the unique setting, and illustrates human nature in action, as well as some larger truths. ~Tadiana Jones

Editor’s note: Marion Deeds reviewed “Folding Beijing in our SFM feature on Sept. 14, 2015 and rated it 5 stars.


“Those Brighter Stars” by Mercurio D. Rivera (August 2016, free on Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Ava is a single mother and a consultant in communicating with animal species, which she understands somewhat due to her extremely high empathy levels. One afternoon, while preparing Thanksgiving dinner with her father and her 12 year old daughter, Ava receives a call from a man who had been working with her the past several months. Archie tells her that the spaceship is now emitting transmissions ― music and series of prime numbers ― and that is has set a course for Earth, due to arrive in three years. Despite her daughter’s anger, Ava immediately packs up to join the government team working on communicating with the alien spaceship.

Over the next three years, and afterwards as the aliens arrive but are oddly uncommunicative, Ava works with this top secret group on communications with the aliens, leaving her daughter to be raised by Ava’s father. Despite Ava’s empathic skills, and despite her lifelong anger at her own mother’s abandoning of her family, Ava makes similar mistakes in her own life, due to the intense excitement and demands of her new job.

“Those Brighter Stars” illustrates the wildly varying ways in which humans react to the coming of the aliens: some with fear, others with hope, or greed. Ava’s struggles with her relationships with her father, mother and daughter finds echoes in the aliens’ behavior toward humanity. It’s a well-told, insightful tale with some disturbing ironies. ~Tadiana Jones


“Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien (1945, newly released at Audible)

Rebecca discussed Tolkien’s story “Leaf by Niggle” in her review of Tales from the Perilous Realm and my husband read it recently after hearing about it in a book he was reading about work, so when HarperCollins released an audio edition of it this summer, I grabbed it. The audio version is charmingly narrated by Derek Jacobi and is 49 minutes long.

Niggle is an artist who has been working on a painting of a forest for many years, but has managed to get only one tree finished before he must leave on a “journey.” He has worked very hard on this one tree, but keeps getting interrupted by little chores, illnesses, or needy neighbors. He resents the interruptions but later discovers that he has missed the big picture.

“Leaf by Niggle” is a beautifully-written metaphor that will probably have a different meaning for each reader. Tolkien probably meant for the story to represent his own life as a writer or a Christian, or both, but anyone who has a “work” or a “calling,” especially those that tend to procrastinate, will find something to relate to and think about in Niggle’s story.

“Leaf by Niggle” was published in The Dublin Review in 1945. ~Kat Hooper


Her Scales Shine Like Music by Rajnar Vajra (August 2016, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

In this second newly-published online short fiction work about close alien encounters, Ross, called “Poet” by his shipmates, is part of the small crew of a spaceship exploring a new planet on behalf of a faceless (and rather corrupt) corporation. When the crew unexpectedly finds some alien artifacts, Poet, as the most dispensable person on the crew, is left behind to preserve their claim until title can be registered. His crew promises to be back for him in a month, and Poet hunkers down by a cold lake in inhospitable territory to keep an eye on the find and pass time as best he can, including working on writing poetry. His boredom is unexpectedly interrupted when something very strange emerges from the lake to watch him each evening.

The developing relationship between Poet and this alien ― not a romantic one, but a very unusual friendship between two vastly different species ― is the focus here. The alien is imaginatively rendered, and her (Poet decides for no particularly compelling reason that the alien is female) interactions with Poet evoke a sense of wonder. Her Scales Shine Like Music also has some intriguing world-building, filled with details that made it seem more real and vivid, like Poet’s ways of dealing with being left behind by his shipmates, and the alien’s methods of communicating with Poet. It’s a universe I’d be interested in revisiting.

Other parts of this novelette, unfortunately, weren’t as successful. Poet’s various attempts at poetry (especially his final one) failed to move me, and the ending was unsatisfying. I’m sure it was a deliberate choice by Rajnar Vajra to end it in a way that emphasizes Poet’s and the alien’s relationship, but too many questions were left unanswered for my taste. ~Tadiana Jones


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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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