SFM: Killjoy, Gaiman, Arimah, Tolbert, Bisson

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. 

“Everything that Isn’t Winter” by Margaret Killjoy (Oct. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

This piece includes a great range of storytelling in few words. “Everything that Isn’t Winter” is set post-apocalypse in a small community that has carved out a comfortable place in the new world. The setting may sound run-of-the-mill, but what Killjoy does with it makes it come to life.

It would be apt to describe “Everything that Isn’t Winter” as ‘gritty’ because it doesn’t shy away from violence. The main character carries a rifle most of the time and spends time thinking about why that is. Something I loved about this story was that Killjoy didn’t dwell on the past in order to contrast it with the post-apocalyptic present; she presented that present as something that ‘is’ rather than ‘could be’ or ‘in opposition to our present’. Her treatment of the setting grounded the story for me, and made it very easy to accept it and sink into it fully.

An underlying element of “Everything that Isn’t Winter” is the relationship between the main character and Khalil, their partner. Killjoy gives depth to this relationship without having to explain their entire history. It is believable and raw and human, even when love is a question.

I enjoyed the balance of action, world-building, and daily life in “Everything that Isn’t Winter.” With a nuanced main character, it proved to be an engaging tale. ~ Skye Walker


“Chivalry” by Neil Gaiman (2012, $1.46 at Audible)

So many of Neil Gaiman’s short whimsical stories are fun to read, but “Chivalry” is especially excellent in this audio version read before a live audience at the Peter Sharp Theatre in New York City. It’s part of Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts series. So, even if you’ve read “Chivalry” before, it’s a treat to hear the delighted audience react as the 27-minute story is read by Christina Pickles.

“Chivalry” is about a retired widow who finds the Holy Grail at her local thrift store. Recognizing it immediately, she purchases it not because of its intrinsic value, but merely because she thinks it will look nice on her mantle. Soon after placing it there, a handsome man shows up on an impressive horse. It’s Sir Galahad on his quest, and he’s anxious to acquire the widow’s thrift store find. Being a chivalrous knight, of course, he wouldn’t think of stealing it, but instead piles on the charm. This story is silly and cute. Christina Pickles is superb and the audience loves it. ~Kat Hooper


“Who Will Greet You At Home” by Lesley Nneka Arimah (2015, free on The New Yorker website)

Ogechi, an assistant hairdresser, accidentally unravels the leg of her baby made out of yarn, not noticing its small cries. Not wanting the baby to grow up maimed, she unravels the rest of the baby and decides to try again later, to make a living baby out of some more durable material. Ogechi is too destitute to make a baby out of anything expensive; she needs to work with the materials on hand. Luckily a hair salon has lots of hair clippings that won’t be missed by anyone, and Ogechi doesn’t believe the old stories that a baby made out of hairs taken from more than person is dangerous.

“Who Will Greet You at Home” is a creepy tale with an unusual African setting. Lesley Nneka Arimah has created a fantastical yet down-to-earth culture where women create babies out of different materials ― mud, yarn, raffia, porcelain, paper ― and the babies are then blessed with life by the women’s mothers, or by other women who have the power to give life.

Even the raffia children of that morning seemed like dirty sponges meant to soak up misfortune when compared with the china child to whom misfortune would never stick. If Ogechi’s mother had seen the child, she would have laughed at how ridiculous such a baby would be, what constant coddling she would need. It would never occur to her that mud daughters needed coddling, too.

If a baby is cared for and kept safe for a full year, it will then turn into a child of flesh, whose personality reflects the materials it was originally made of. Ogechi is estranged from her own mother, so she needs to pay Mama, the cold-hearted proprietor of the hair salon, to give her child life. And since Ogechi doesn’t have enough money, she needs to pay Mama in other ways.

There were a couple of aspects to the plot and setting that didn’t quite hold water for me: men seem to have no place at all in this culture, and most of the women seem to be oddly focused on having a child. The story devolves toward the end into a predictable horror plot. Still, the richly detailed setting was a pleasure to read about, and Ogechi’s pain and desperation at not having a child of her own, her jealousy of other women who do, and her deep longing to have a child that is made of something whimsical and lovely ― not of mud, like Ogechi herself ― feel poignantly real.

The New Yorker also has an excellent interview with Arimah, discussing the ideas that went into this particular story. ~Tadiana Jones


The Cavern of the Screaming Eye by Jeremiah Tolbert (Oct. 2016, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

This entertaining novelette is obviously the first installment in a forthcoming story series, or the prologue of a novel that Jeremiah Tolbert is working on. It stars a teenager named Ivan whose brother, now presumed dead, was a famous Dungeonspace crawler. The loss has mentally crippled Ivan’s mother so, as much as Ivan feels compelled to follow in his adventurous brother’s footsteps, he has so far resisted temptation just for his mother’s sake. But one day an enthusiastic new boy who calls himself Domino shows up at school and talks Ivan into doing a little exploring in the space-time anomaly known as Dungeonspace that manifests in Braxis City.

The Cavern of the Screaming Eye has a great setting and will unquestionably appeal to teens and adults who enjoy Dungeons and Dragons style games. The story conjures up the thrill of that type of fantasy adventuring while poking a bit of fun at it along the way. (For example, Domino’s father is a scientist who studies why electronics don’t work in Dungeonspace, and one of the explorers wonders aloud about how a monster they meet happens to speak their language.) Ivan and his new friends are starting as newbies in this story but I can tell they’ll be developing talents and collecting artifacts as the story progresses in future installments.

The teenager jargon is slightly annoyingly (but realistically) repetitive (“chill”, “swank”) and there’s a sloppy spot where Ivan opens his locker after he’s already walked away from it, but I liked this story well enough that I’ll happily give the next one a try.

I listened to The Cavern of the Screaming Eye from the Lightspeed Magazine podcast which downloads automatically to my phone. Stefan Rudnicki of Skyboat Media expertly reads this hour-long story. His voice is a little too mature for the teenage characters, but I didn’t mind. Oh, and by the way, the scene on Lightspeed Magazine’s cover is from this story. ~Kat Hooper


“England Underway” by Terry Bisson (1993,  free online at Infinity Plus, originally published in Omni, July 1993, republished in Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories). Nominated for 1994 Hugo award (short story) and 1993 Nebula award (novelette)

Mr. Fox, an older British gentleman who live a quiet, regular life in Brighton, England with his dog Anthony, is one day surprised to discover, along with the rest of the world, that England has become detached and is floating away from its prior location, heading around Ireland and out into the Atlantic Ocean. Scotland and Wales are coming along for the ride, of course, though Ireland is not (“Ireland is hardly about to be chasing England around the seven seas.”). Mr. Fox’s daily routine is disrupted by this adventure: crowds of people are come to Brighton’s shore to watch England plowing through the ocean at about four knots per hour, and Mr. Fox’s monthly letter from his niece Emily in America, which invariably arrives on the fifth of each month, starts arriving earlier and earlier. Mr. Fox hasn’t seen Emily since she was a ten year old girl, thirty years ago, and he’s always refused to fly in an airplane. But now it seems he may have an unexpected visit with his American relatives.

This story, nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards, is a quirky little fantasy, told with dry tongue-in-cheek humor. The science underlying England’s sudden mobility is briefly stated to be a matter of plate tectonics, which of course makes almost no logical sense. But Terry Bisson’s focus here is not on scientific plausibility but on human nature and the details of everyday life. The British, showing a stiff upper lip, handle the unexpected voyage of their country with commendable poise. The news media speculates on the direction of their country. And in the midst of all the excitement, Mr. Fox diligently continues with his routine life, including his daily dose of Anthony Trollope’s writings. ~Tadiana Jones


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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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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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3 comments

  1. Really good stuff this week! Thanks, all!

  2. I’d definitely recommend both of the stories I reviewed. And now I REALLY want to read Neil Gaiman’s Chivalry! I’m not an audio book listener, but I might have to bend my rule for this one.

  3. Interesting Lavie Tidhar story Only human free on Escape Pod.

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