SFM: Kehrli, Flynn, King, Hirschberg, Resnick, Buckell, Clitheroe

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. In honor of the U.S. Independence Day today, several of our stories deal with the theme of freedom — though not always in the sense one might expect.

 

“And Never Mind the Watching Ones” by Keffy R.M. Kehrli (Dec. 2015, free in Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

This strange and gorgeous story sets out as a somewhat mundane tale. It begins with a post-sex break-up; Aaron’s high-school boyfriend, Christian, tells him that he’s moving away for college rather than staying local. After seeing online that their breakup is official and public, Aaron runs away from home. From there, we get short scenes from the POV of other teenagers whose paths cross Aaron’s. Being a teenager is hard, right?

The thing that makes this world different than ours is the glitter frogs, tiny alien frogs with nano-tech embedded in their bodies. They are everywhere: in bedrooms, cars, kitchens, on the street and in the desert. Although references are made to an alien ship, their existence in the world isn’t ever fully explained. But their constant presence — and their benign watching of the humans around them — begins to unsettle not only the reader but some of the characters as well.

After Aaron runs away, Christian feels the frogs watching him, silently judging. Anonymous sources online claim that the frogs are not aliens at all, but part of a government conspiracy. And Nickie, Christian’s biology lab partner, mistrusts them, dissecting one to see what is inside—some normal frog stuff, like blood and muscle, but also circuits and a radio-frequency chip. The constant oversight of the frogs is creepy, and it is suggested that the frogs can interface with the Internet, controlling what information about them is passed around online.

But as a reader, I was neutral towards the frogs, partly because Kehrli shows us their vulnerability by indicating that humans can mistreat them, and partly because the runaway Aaron loves the frogs. In a way, they are his destination. On finding out that Christian is leaving him, he says, “I wish for once I could be the one leaving, not the one being left behind.” Feeling out of place among his peers, he decides to escape his life, traveling into the desert with other runaways — all outsiders, in one sense or another — to leave Earth with the frogs.

While I’m not 100% sure I “get” the story, this felt like a story that is experienced rather than understood. Kehrli’s last lines, of the thoughts of the teenagers as they enter the desert, really sell the lovely ambiguity and evoke the wonder of the unknown:

Together, they wonder what the ship will be like, the stars, the swiftly receding earth. All around them, spread out for miles as dense as carpet, the glitter frogs begin to sing.

~Kate Lechler


“The Promise of God” by Michael Flynn (1995, reprint 2016 in Clarkesworld #117, magazine issue)

“You shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Based on the above quote by Emerson, “The Promise of God” is a disturbing story about a young man whose magical powers were discovered when he was seven years old. His distraught parents sent him to live with a “rixler” — someone who takes responsibility for raising a magician. This is necessary because every time someone uses magic, a bit of their soul dies.

Throughout the story, which is told in the present tense and through a series of flashbacks, we see the magician’s inability to develop a normal moral compass. This is partly due to his diminishing soul and partly due to the way he is treated by others, especially by his parents who rejected and abandoned him. The ending, which is surprising and upsetting, makes us consider the entire story from a different perspective.

Flynn is best known for science fiction, not fantasy, so that makes this a unique tale for him. As he explains on his blog, “The Promise of God” was inspired by a Lunacon brainstorming session led by Guest of Honor Orson Scott Card called “One hundred ideas per hour.”

“The Promise of God” was reprinted in a recent edition of Clarkesworld magazine (Issue 117). I listed to the podcast version read by Kate Baker. “The Promise of God” was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in March 1995. ~Kat Hooper


“Cookie Jar” by Stephen King (May 2016, free at VQR Online)

Thirteen year old Dale goes to the retirement home to talk to his great-grandfather, ninety year old Rhett. Dale just wants a couple of stories about the old days for a school history report, but gets a lot more than he bargained for. Rhett begins reminiscing about radio shows (they were “really sponsored by cigarettes?” asks Dale), but soon Rhett tells Dale to turn off his iPhone recorder: Rhett’s going to tell him something really interesting.

Rhett’s tale is about his broken family and “peculiar” mother, who Rhett and his brother Jack would travel across town to visit. His mother told them stories about an alien world, called Lalanka, in another dimension right next to ours, where some terrible things were happening, including time freezing and a creeping white mist called forza that kills small animals and gives larger ones convulsions. And she would feed them all kinds of different cookies ― always fresh, always delicious ― from the blue ceramic cookie jar that she kept on a high shelf. After their mother commits suicide, the boys inherit the cookie jar and discover that it constantly and magically refills with cookies. The only question is: what’s at the bottom of the jar? Rhett eventually decides to find out.

Stephen King ties Rhett’s later horrific experiences in WWII to his mother’s tales of the other world, where creeping mist kills and time stops. The vanilla sweetness of the fresh cookies is a disturbing contrast to the sick, war-torn worlds ― both Lalanka and ours. However, if the cookie jar is cursed, or dangerous, Rhett’s final decision on what to do with it is inexplicable. In fact, I found that the fantastical part of the plot of “Cookie Jar” didn’t really make much logical sense upon closer scrutiny. Still, it was a well-told tale, with a couple of appealing characters in Rhett and Dale, and I really enjoyed it while I was reading it. ~Tadiana Jones

“Cookie Jar,” a spring 2016 short story by Stephen King, is a mellow tale about a great-grandfather and his thirteen-year-old descendant, Dale, who has come to interview the old man as part of a school project. Rhett, as he insists on being called, recounts the story of a magically-refilling cookie jar that was once in his peculiar mother’s possession and then passed to him after her death; he also talks about Rhett’s older brothers, Jack and Pete, and their very different experiences in World War II. The cookie jar itself seems to be tied to another world, one with elements which are eerily similar to the one Rhett recognizes as his own, and may have driven his mother mad before she took her own life.

The cookie jar’s abilities are interesting, even if the “fantasy analogue to WWII atrocities” theme is well-worn. Rhett’s voice is appealing, though a little too artfully-constructed for me to feel like it was genuine, and Dale was too much of a blank slate. The boy has zero personality, and Rhett could be talking to just about anyone while still serving the needs of the author. Aside from the descriptions of Rhett’s mother, which strongly evoke King’s loving descriptions of his own mother in his memoir, On Writing, and the ending — in which Rhett muses whether the cookie jar is a blessing or a curse — there isn’t much to distinguish this from any other talented writer’s work. If I didn’t know King had written this story, I never would have guessed it on my own. “Cookie Jar” is a decent piece of short fiction, but nothing about it lingered in my mind. ~Jana Nyman


Freedom is Space for the Spirit by Glen Hirshberg (April 2016, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

In this melancholy and wistful fantasy set in modern-day Russia, Thomas, a German man in his forties, receives a strange telegram from Vasily, a Russian friend from his youthful days, when they lived through the exciting, crazy days of the Soviet Union breakup. Vasily’s telegram extends an enigmatic but insistent invitation to come visit and see what’s “happening now,” so Thomas reluctantly leaves his pregnant wife and travels to Russia.

When he arrives in St. Petersburg, Vasily is nowhere to be found, but what Thomas does find are a couple of dozen great, silent, shaggy bears, wandering through the streets of St. Peterburg, jumping on the buses … and, oddly, being studiously ignored by most of the inhabitants of the city. Stranger yet, these bears have no mouths at all ― only patchy fur where their mouths and teeth should be. Thomas slowly reacquaints himself with the city where he spent such an exciting year as a student, trying to find Vasily and trying to investigate and solve the mystery of the mouthless bears.

Freedom is Space for the Spirit immerses the reader in post-Soviet Russia, evocatively describing the people and place:

The buildings seemed to gray with each passing block, almost to shudder back in time to a darker, lonelier, more familiar Russia. What windows there were had drawn curtains in them … He wondered if there would be more signs out front, carpeting, perhaps a few of those craggy, hunched Russian women the state had always planted inside and at the doors of every museum he’d ever been to in this country, to glower at attendees, daring anyone who crossed their path to ask a question, disturb the silence.

This leisurely-paced novella is more about theme than plot, using the mouthless and frustrated bears as a symbol of the current plight of Russia and its loss of hope from the heady days of glasnost. I found my attention repeatedly wandering due to the slow pace, and the mystical cause of the bears is explained only in the vaguest terms. In the end, Freedom is Space for the Spirit didn’t really resonate with me, but I think for the right reader it will be a profound and moving experience. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Shackles of Freedom” by Mike Resnick and Tobias S. Buckell (2004, free sample at Baen, contained in the Visions of Liberty anthology)

Visions of Liberty is an anthology of tales from different science fiction writers, who’ve written tales of societies where there is no formal government, so people are truly free ― or are they? In “The Shackles of Freedom,” Dr. William Hostetler has joined a group of Amish people who now live on their own planet, free to follow their beliefs, which include avoiding technology. Hostetler loves the people, especially the young woman Rebecca Yoder, but he is deeply frustrated with the limitations put on his medical practice by Amish beliefs, and the needless deaths that occur because of their adamant rejection of modern medical science. Eventually, of course, matters come to a head and the conflict becomes acute.

“The Shackles of Freedom” explores the price that is paid by those who remain are devoted to a system of belief, even when it costs them dearly. The personal and societal cost of abandoning belief due to outer circumstances, even extremely compelling ones, is a worthy theme. However, Mike Resnick did a better, more nuanced job developing this idea in his Kirinyaga tales, most notably in “The Manamouki,” in which a married couple immigrates to a planet where their modern values clash with the traditional Kenyan Kikuyu tribal beliefs and practices that are adhered to on Kirinyaga. This short story seems like a paler echo of that one, just with an Amish setting rather than an African one. ~Tadiana Jones


“Wild Things Got to Go Free” by Heather Clitheroe (2015, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)

In the village where nine year old Leah and her family live, some grown-ups go away and never return. No one talks about it, especially not to outsiders like the soldiers stationed in and around the village. Leah doesn’t think much about it until her mother starts to turn different: her breath begins to smell like hot metal and her eyes sometimes glow with an inner light. Soon Leah overhears her mother telling her father that she will need to go soon … and that Leah someday will have to follow her. Leah’s mother promises to explain to her (and the reader) what is really happening, but she fails to do that before she leaves. Leah is beside herself with distress. And things only get worse when the soldiers get involved, hunting down her mother and the villagers who are in hiding outside the village until “the time comes.”

The only real question in my mind was what exactly was happening with the disappearing villagers. In the end, the mystery isn’t particularly original or difficult to suss out, but it was rather interesting seeing the events of this story through a young, very bewildered girl’s eyes. ~Tadiana Jones

 


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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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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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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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled 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 Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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3 comments

  1. I just read The Promise of God, Kat. That’s a haunting story. I appreciated the logic even when I was appalled!

  2. Tadiana, I was also underwhelmed by “Wild Things Got to Go Free,” but I thought Leah’s voice and perspective were really convincing.

    • Yes, usually young children are unrealistically precocious in novels, but Leah acted and thought as I think a 9 year old really would.

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