SFM: Palmer, Schutz, Gregory, Goh, McKee

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.

“Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer (2018, free online at Clarkesworld, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Science fiction humor is very hard to pull off, and rarely works for me. This Suzanne Palmer story is a radiant exception. Palmer hits a grand-slam with a human soldier who has 33% of his body replaced with smart parts, including a heart, one arm, part of the lower intestine and a spleen. An implanted Central Control Unit manages all of the implants, and their mission is to keep Joe alive. There are a couple of problems. One is that, while Joe is a good soldier, he is a terrible combatant. In fact, what he wants to be is a baker and a cook, but he joined the military as the behest of his heartless, glory-seeking mother. The other problem is that the presence of the smart units themselves makes Joe trackable by the enemy, and in combat, he becomes a target. The smart units discuss this issue, and others, among themselves, as Joe tries to stay alive.

The war that provides the backdrop is clearly an internal one; Joe and his company are trying to take Ohio. In the sections that are in Joe’s point of view, he gravitates toward the commissary kitchen, trying to improve the really terrible food recipes that the automated kitchen is giving its one hapless human attendant. Soon Joe is known as Biscuit Guy by the other soldiers, but he is getting sent back into combat more and more frequently and the smart units must take drastic action, even acting outside of their programmed parameters, if they are going to keep him alive.

The main character/s is/are the smart units (I’d say as a collective); Joe is just well developed enough as a secondary character. It is refreshing to read a story about AIs who are well-meaning toward humans and actually successful at helping. And the dialogue among the AIs is funny. The war is sketched in, but we know enough, just as we know enough about Joe’s family to understand that when he says he wants to die a hero, he means he wants to die because that is the only way for his personal nightmare to end. The humor is warm, the story ends with hope, and there are spleen jokes. What more could you want? ~Marion Deeds


“How to Make a Medusa” by Ziggy Schutz (free at Daily Science Fiction March 12, 2018)

I read just about all the March stories from Daily Science Fiction, and this was my favorite by far. As the story progresses, we watch a young girl become, well, a Medusa, beginning when adults tell her she’s going to be “a looker” and she tries to “have the eyes to match.”

Every day she stares, until her eyes start to bulge from their sockets, and she notices she can see things in the dark corners of rooms no one else can.

Schutz makes excellent use of the Medusa myth. The language is precise and sharp in the service of biting social commentary. A moving, finely-honed story that lingers long after one finishes it. Highly recommended.
~Bill Capossere


“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory (2018, free at Tor.com; 99c Kindle version)

In 1975, when LT is ten years old, alien plant seeds in silver-and-black metal casings begin raining down on Earth like tiny meteorites, covering our planet’s lands and oceans. Humans attempt to gather up and destroy the “space seeds,” but it’s a hopeless task, and soon various types of odd plant infestations begin to take root and spread.

… the weblike filaments choking the trees in New Orleans, the flame-colored poppies erupting on Mexico City rooftops, the green fins popping up in Florida beach sand like sharks coming ashore. Every shell that struck Earth, and some that hit the surface of the water, cracked and sent millions of seeds into the air or into the oceans.

Are aliens planning to invade, and sending these plants as a first attack on humans, or setting up their food supplies on Earth in advance of the invasion?

Against this backdrop of fear and concern, Daryl Gregory follows LT through the years, on nine significant days spread over his lifetime spent studying the invasive alien plants. Each of these days is significant as a “last” day of something important in LT’s life, but these particular days are meaningful for other reasons as well, as LT deals with parental conflicts, realizes that he is gay, and develops meaningful relationships in his life. As a teenager, LT points out to his mother’s new husband that many of the alien plants evidence the “golden spiral” or Fibonacci sequence. It’s a nice touch that the nine days in LT’s life follow this same numerical sequence. LT and others eventually come to some surprising realizations about the alien seeds. “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” is an intelligent, heartwarming story. ~Tadiana Jones


“Magic Potion Behind-the-Mountains” by Jaymee Goh (2018, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, $1.99 Kindle magazine issue)

In this fable-like tale set in ancient Mongolia, a younger royal son has his promising military career derailed, at least temporarily, when his older brother sends him to the distant northern land of Yaoha as a magistrate for a year. On his journey to his new posting, he sees a cart driver lift an immensely heavy tree trunk off the road. The magistrate is told that the cart driver is from Behind-the-Mountains, a village surrounded by rumors and stories of magical strength and other mysterious powers.

So as soon as the magistrate settles in, he summons Grandmother Seung, the old druidess of Behind-the-Mountains, to ask for her magic potion that makes the people from her village so strong. Grandmother Seung agrees to share her secret, but as a condition she requires the magistrate to come to her village every morning and help her with the physical labor involved in learning how to make the magic potion. So for the next several months she runs him around, climbing all over the hills, learning about the wild boar and various herbs that go into the potion, and in the process coming to know the people of the area and their lives and concerns.

This is a rather predictable story; I thought the ending was telegraphed fairly early on. But it’s a well-told and satisfying tale, with realistic details, and the way the “magic potion” eventually was explained was clever. ~Tadiana Jones


“In My Wheelchair I Am Invisible” by Shawn R. McKee (free at Daily Science Fiction March 22, 2018)

I enjoyed how the social commentary of how people react to those in wheelchairs — averting their eyes — is turned into a “superpower,” albeit one of mixed benefit to the speaker as they “can’t turn it off.”  The ending ties off nicely and in a timely fashion, as any greater length would have been more than the premise could bear. There isn’t a lot to the story, but it’s a decent read.  ~Bill Capossere


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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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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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