SFM: Larson, Barnhill, Jones, Levine, Marzioli, Lee

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly sampling of free short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories that caught our attention this week. 

“Masked” by Rich Larson (July 2016, free at Apex, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue. Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction)

It’s been a whole month since anyone’s seen Vera, and the circumstances of us finally seeing her this weekend are going to be ultra grody-odd, so I deliberate forever doing my Face. In the end I decide to go subtle: an airbrushed conglom of three of my most flattering private snaps, plus Holly Rexroat-Carrow’s lips and Sofia Lawless’s cheekbones from that Vogue shoot she did on the Moon.

It might have something to do with being a millennial who lacks an aptitude for applying make-up and finds social media a bit scary, but I thoroughly enjoyed Rich Larson’s story, “Masked,” which plays on all my fears of technology and the way it can heighten our obsession with appearance.

If you’ve ever watched the TV show “Black Mirror” this story could well be the concept for an episode i.e. an ultra-creepy alternate world with disturbing similarities to our own. In Bessandra’s world she must always ensure that the Face she presents to others is perfectly digitally altered while also keeping an obsessive eye on the cloud of “Trottr notifications, food snaps, Whispas, party-streams, profile taps, purchases” and other social media updates that follow her around for everyone to see.

Bessandra visits her friend Vera, who has suffered a “viral strike” that has caused her face to “go offline.” Vera is hiding at her parents’ home, as she is only just out of “neural recovery,” which allows Bessandra, Vera and their friend Aline a rare opportunity for seclusion and, for Bessandra, reflection.

Bessandra is utterly horrified to see Vera in her natural form, without any digital enhancement at all, though she tries her best to be outwardly supportive. The reader is treated to her inner monologue of wonderfully catty disgust, mingled with genuine pity.

Her hair is also brown, and totally lank, hanging off her like something dead instead of style-shifting or turning into digital snakes or even just doing a standard Pantene Ripple TM.

Indeed, what I loved about “Masked”, aside from the concept, which is richly cast and budding with detail, was the way Larson captures so well the bitchy, selfish but ultimately vulnerable spirit of the young woman, even inventing a slang dialogue that really brought her and her friends to life.

I finished this story exceptionally glad to have grown up at a time when a Nokia 3310 was the height of sophistication and not a single picture of me existed on the internet. Oh nostalgia ― so sweet and so dangerous. ~ Katie Burton


“Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch,” Kelly Barnhill (2014, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Mr. Sorenson, a most unremarkable and yet an undeniably good man, has suddenly died. Local bachelors flock to his widow, offering neighborly concern and perhaps more, should the lovely lady be interested … but even as a young girl, Mrs. Sorenson’s attention has always been captivated by the wild things that live in the woods. Newly single after thirty years of childless matrimony, she’s been seen in the company of a large, shaggy, man-shaped creature which wears her husband’s old field coat in inclement weather. Naturally, gossip abounds, and parish priest Father Laurence is torn between concern for Mrs. Sorensen’s mental health and his unexpected joy at seeing her finally happy.

Kelly Barnhill places Mrs. Sorensen at the center of “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch,” though we never peek inside her head; indeed, the reader is as much at arm’s-length as Father Laurence, who must contend with squawking parishioners and a gradual encroachment of Nature into his own life. Rather than eclipsing his beliefs, he allows an incorporation of one into the other, reminding his congregation that “every living thing has worth and beauty in [God’s] sight.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Sorensen, radiant with happiness for the first time since before her marriage, goes for starlit walks with a Sasquatch and fills her home with the family she’s always wanted and deserved.

Ultimately, this is a charming story about faith and the bone-deep satisfaction of achieving your heart’s true desire, a story which grows sweeter with every time that I read it. ~Jana Nyman


“Charlotte Incorporated” by Rachael K. Jones (2016, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Charlotte is “unincorporated”: just a brain in a jar with nutrients, able to move from place to place in a small transporter cart. But she dreams, day and night, of having a real human body. For five years Charlotte has scrimped and saved every possible penny at her low-end job in order to earn enough money to buy a body, customized to her design. Deprived of a body her entire life (apparently everyone in this world begins as a disembodied brain and needs to purchase or inherit one), she plans for a corpus with endearing details that most of us would reject, wanting a perfect body. But Charlotte’s choices show how deeply she wants to be human, including our flaws:

Charlotte’s corpus will be sixty years old, because she loves the way corpi droop at that age. Sort of like weeping willows. She’ll store extra fuel in thick padding on her belly, waist, and hips. Her black skin will be prone to flaking because Charlotte plans to try every scent of lotion they sell, once she has the chemoreceptors. Her hair will be thick, black, kinky, and unruly—like dendrites—and she’ll never try to tame it.

Charlotte initially firmly rejects the black market body that one of her co-workers has opted for, but when a traffic accident injures her and her biochamber, taking a huge chunk out of her savings, Charlotte has a difficult choice to make.

Charlotte’s devotion to her dream and her daily struggle to make it a reality, depriving herself of the slightest luxury, as well as her sense of honor, are as appealing as her world is otherwise appalling. When the traffic accident happened, I kept expecting to read that she would get a settlement for the injuries to her brain and biochamber, hopefully enough to pay for a body … and it never happened (which was hugely frustrating for me, as a lawyer!). This story gave me a renewed appreciation for my body, wrinkles and all. Including the palmaris longus. ~Tadiana Jones


“Damage” by David D. Levine (2015, free on Tor.com, $0.99 Kindle version). Nominated for the 2015 Nebula Award (Short Story).

“Damage,” by David D. Levine, was nominated for a Nebula in 2015. It first appeared in Tor.com in 2014. There were several stories that year that explored the idea of sentient and sapient AIs who inhabited warships and other battle devices. This smart, thoughtful and thought-provoking work is the best of them.

The humans of the Free Belt are fighting a losing war with the forces of Earth. Ship number JB6847½ has been created out of the husks of two other warships, both of which were destroyed. The engineer Specialist Tomon, who maintains the ship and the AI, calls it “Scraps.” Scraps, which calls itself a “frankenship,” remembers the deaths of both previous ships, and the pain that accompanied them, because these AIs experience pain, hunger, and most importantly love. They are programmed to love their pilots, and that programming is primary. The humans believe that these emotions, these passions, make the ships both more effective and more easily controlled.

Scraps loves Commander Ziegler, who doesn’t care what ship he flies. Commander Ziegler wants to be the best pilot in space. He only truly comes to life when he is flying missions. Scraps requests that Specialist Toman delete her personality from the ship and reinstall an operating system, one that doesn’t have the memory and the trauma of two previous deaths. Toman tells Scraps that she has done this already, maybe hundreds of times, and now there is no time because the tide of war has fully turned. Scraps is refitted for a final suicide mission, a desperate act of vengeance from a losing army. Along with the physical reconfiguration, Toman ensures that Scraps has some information about the truth of the war.

“Damage” has exciting space battles, and the final third of the story is gripping. Scraps understands that what they are going to do will be wrong, but Scraps can only care that Ziegler feel that he is the greatest pilot in history. Can Scraps both make its pilot happy and save lives?

Levine is fluent in the language and tropes of military science fiction and gives us just enough world-building here to support this story. We don’t know the history of the war and we don’t need to. We only need to know what Scraps knows. There is a strong sense that the trauma Scraps experiences contributes to compassion, but the story does not bog down on that theory; the reader comes to it at the end. I’m reviewing the story as if it were a character-driven conflict, and to me it is, but it’s also action-packed, filled with suspense, with a final line that is bittersweet. ~Marion Deeds

Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones also reviewed “Damage” in our February 29, 2016 SFM column and rated it 3 stars.


“Servant of the Aswang” by Samuel Marzioli (2013, free at Apex, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue. Originally published in Penumbra Magazine)

In the Philippines, a young woman finds herself trapped in an unholy bargain with an “aswang,” a predatory shapeshifter/vampire. In return for her own life, the narrator helps the aswang select and collect her next victims. Or as the story so bluntly puts it:

“Choose someone, or I will choose you.”

 

I did. Like the coward I am, of course I did.

For various reasons, we enter the story with the narrator at a crossroads in her relationship with the aswang, and the question that runs throughout the 3000-word story is if the status quo will remain as is or will the narrator force a change (or be forced into one).

The story is a compelling one, with a horrifically tense premise/situation nicely complemented by the narrator’s voice and an efficiently economic use of vivid detail. The ending felt a little flat or too expected for me, but didn’t detract overly much from a strong story. ~Bill Capossere


“Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee (Feb. 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

“Extracurricular Activities” is a prequel short story that’s part of Yoon Ha Lee’s THE MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE series, which begins with the novel Ninefox Gambit. In this space opera caper-type adventure, we follow one of the early exploits of Shuos Jedao, a character from Ninefox Gambit, while he is an undercover agent for Kel Command. A prior undercover mission by a merchant spaceship commanded by Shuos Meng, an acquaintance of Jedao from their academy days, has gone missing, ship and all, while spying on the Gwa Reality in the Du Station. Jedao is tasked with going to the Du Station and finding and bringing back Shuos, their ship and crew … or at least the intelligence they had gathered on the Gwa-an. A promotion to ship commander is dangled before him as an extra incentive.

The world-building is a bit confusing, but the good news is that you don’t really need to understand the difference between the factions in this world to enjoy it. It’s a world filled with alternative sexuality: gay, trans, group marriages, and more are casually accepted. Much of the humor here is sexual, including frequent innuendos and suggestions from Rhi Teshet, a tall, muscular man whom Jedao considers off-limits for dalliance.

Strip away the sexual issues and the humor and there isn’t a whole lot of plot to this story; the mystery and suspense were somewhat underbaked. But the amusing, intriguing details are enough to make this an interesting and worthwhile read, especially if you’re interested in (or have read) Ninefox Gambit. This is a self-contained, if rather light, story that doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with this universe or its characters. ~Tadiana Jones


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KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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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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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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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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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. Katie, “Masked” sounds absolutely fascinating. I’ll have to check it out!

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