SFM: Palmer, Bright, Gailey, Mudie

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read that we wanted you to know about.

“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer (Sept. 2017, free at Clarkesworld)

Fans of WALL-E will particularly appreciate this whimsically poignant tale about an outdated robot with a can-do attitude.  Robot #9 is reactivated by its spaceship after a lengthy time in storage, and is assigned the task of ridding the Ship of a particularly destructive “biological infestation” (the bots begin to call it the “ratbug,” though Bot 9 privately questions the accuracy of that moniker) that is chewing apart bots and other parts of the Ship. Bot 9 sets to with a will, though it wonders why the Ship is in such poor shape and why Bot 9 has been assigned a task that is so low on the maintenance queue.

As Bot 9 pursues the elusive ratbug around the Ship, it becomes acquainted with many of the newer bots. It also becomes aware of an alien invasion that has decimated humanity’s defenses, and the Ship’s desperate mission to try to stop an alien ship heading toward Earth far larger and more powerful than itself. Bot 9 is archaic in many ways compared to the newer bots, but perhaps it has some unique capabilities that may help their cause.

The story is told primarily from Bot 9’s point of view, interspersed with some scenes from the point of view of the Ship’s human captain. The Bots really do have a life and culture of their own that is invisible to most humans. Bot 9 recites various mantras to help it with its tasks, discusses its concerns with the AI brain that governs the Ship, and communicates politely with the newer, more specialized bots on the Ship (“We all wish you great and quick success, despite your outdated and primitive manufacture.”).

The bots and the Ship AI are chatty and almost human in some of their attitudes and communications, which required some suspension of disbelief. But that’s a minor complaint, given how much this story otherwise enchanted me. “The Secret Life of Bots” is neatly plotted, with a memorable and appealing main character, and a pleasing theme that touches on friendship, courage and ingenuity. I hope Bot 9 and its friends have more adventures in store. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Library of Lost Things” by Matthew Bright (Sept. 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Thomas Hardy applies for a job at the Library, a magical place that contains all of the books and literary works that have been lost over the years. The Librarian takes him on, with reservations: he’s interested only in incurious boys who aren’t particularly bright, don’t use multisyllabic words or think complicated thoughts, and have no real interest in literature as such.

Tom hides from the Librarian both his intelligence and his secret reasons for wanting to work at the Library. But the talking rats that infest the Library and address Tom with odd, single-word statements (“Borborygmus!” “Anopisthograph!” “Sardoodledom!”) seem to have an inkling that he is more than he seems to be. Then there’s the flamboyant man named Jean Genet who shows up at one of the Library employees’ parties; he’s interested in Tom sexually ― and perhaps for more reasons than that.

The plot of “The Library of Lost Things” is a bit on the slight side, but the story is very cleverly told. The Library setting is fascinating, with all of its literature that has been lost to humanity (the story includes several references to actual lost works), even though it’s a dispiriting place as well, governed by a mean-spirited librarian. The single-word interchanges between Tom and the rats had my fingers busy looking up obscure words with Google’s search feature, especially as it gradually became apparent that these little-known words add meaning to the story. If you read this one, pay attention to those words! ~Tadiana Jones


“A Lady’s Maid” by Sarah Gailey (May 2017, free at Barnes and Noble blog)

This story is the first foray into free short fiction online for the Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog. “A Lady’s Maid” is the story of one evening that, for some, goes spectacularly wrong ― and yet, for others, surprisingly right. The events that lead up to an interesting finish are preceded by the engagement of Nadia, a beautiful socialite, to Stephen Vanderbilt ― a boorish man with some skeletons in his closet.

I found “A Lady’s Maid” to be an engaging short tale with some neat surprises up its sleeves. Not only was I intrigued by the perspective changes (effectively questioning who the main character is throughout the tale), but I was genuinely surprised by the ending. Honestly, at first read I wasn’t thrilled by the actions at the end of the story. Part of me wanted it to be simple. I wanted it to be clear and easy to get behind one character over another. “A Lady’s Maid” doesn’t let you have an uncomplicated relationship with any of the characters, and in that way it breaks an easy, expected formula.

I enjoyed this story in spite of and because of how it subverted my expectations of where the narrative was going. That, with the surprising twist that has had a little more depth each time I’ve read it, amounted to a worthwhile short read. ~ Skye Walker


“An Ever-Expanding Flash of Light” by Timothy Mudie (Sept. 2017, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Tone and his wife Irina are deeply in love, so when Irina tells Tone that she is terminally ill with an inoperable cancerous tumor, Tone can’t simply accept losing her. They decide that Irina will be cryogenically frozen until there’s a cure for cancer. To pay the high cost of her cryogenic treatment and storage, Tone signs up for the Earth Merchant Force, a quasi-military force that travels between Earth and new planets that are being explored. His new career has the dual benefit of both paying for Irina’s storage and keeping Tone alive through the centuries due to the time dilation effect of jumps across space … if he can survive the risky missions that the merchant-soldiers are assigned. Carnivorous (and ambulatory) plants are only the beginning!

The story alternates between Tone’s experiences with the merchant force and his prior interactions with Irina. While I appreciated the couple’s relationship and their creative approach to problem-solving, I wasn’t as impressed with the rest of the story. Mudie glosses over most of Tone’s galactic adventures (with the notable exception of the man-eating flowers and a final encounter with an advanced alien race) and the ways that life on Earth changes ― or, more accurately, doesn’t change ― over the centuries. That, and what I thought was a quite unlikely outcome, robs the ending of some of its emotional impact. ~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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SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @cskyewalker.

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