SHORTS: Prasad, Wahls, Pinsker, Dick, Kressel

Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Several 2017 Nebula short fiction nominees are reviewed in today’s column.

A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (2017, free at Clarkesworld, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2017 Nebula award nominee (novelette)

In this near-future SF novelette, 3-D printing has become so advanced that a “bioprinter” can mass-produce copies of food. In any criminal forgery case, the best forgeries are the ones that never get noticed, and Helena Li Yuanhui of Splendid Beef Enterprises, a one-woman business in Nanjing, China, is an expert at it. She keeps her business small and the quality of her gray market meat forgeries high, hoping to gradually earn enough to start a new life and make a complete break with her past.

Unfortunately for Helena, but not for our story, her past is discovered by a businessman, who blackmails her into secretly mass-producing 200 T-bone steaks ― a job far beyond Helena’s current capabilities. Among other complications, the 200 steaks need to be individualized with marbling, etc., so that they don’t look like carbon copies of each other. In desperation, she hires a perky but suspiciously capable assistant, Lily Yonezawa. Helena’s luck begins to turn as she and Lily become closer while working on this massive project, despite her anonymous blackmailer’s increasingly creepy threats.

Singaporean author Vina Jie-Min Prasad combines humor with a sharp eye for detail. The discussions of the technical difficulties involved in mass-producing T-bone steaks gave A Series of Steaks a realistic grounding, and the two main characters are easy to cheer for despite their iffy forgery business. It’s a lively, charming story. This one and Sara Pinsker’s Wind Will Rove are my clear favorites of the Nebula novelette nominees. ~Tadiana Jones


“Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls (June 2017, free on Strange Horizons). 2017 Nebula award nominee (short story)

The mix of humour and science fiction never fails to be compelling when executed well, and “Utopia, Lol?” is executed very well indeed.

Charles is woken from a cryogenic deep freeze and finds himself in “utopia” ― a virtual universe of “smart matter” presided over by a digital being called the Allocator. Earth has been largely devoured to make more smart matter, but a little lump remains, preserved as a nature reserve.

The first thing Charles sees is Kit (full name: Kit/dinaround), an alarmingly chirpy “guide to future”. Kit has trouble with patience and is eager to show Charles all her favourite alternate realities, which include Bird Simulator and Floor Tile Simulator, or, as Kit says: “No way! I love FloTiSim!”

In the end Charles picks his own reality (one that many of us might envy), eventually returning to the Allocator for some much more serious business.

The joy of this story comes from Kit, who tells the story in such a wonderfully perky and good-natured way that the entire thing is a joy to read. Her frantic conversational style, combined with emojis and excessive exclamation marks, took me right back to the early days of MSN Messenger (if MSN were transported millions of years into the future).

My only criticism is that I had a bit of trouble understanding the ending of “Utopia, Lol?” Even after having read it several times, I’m not entirely sure I’ve interpreted it quite right (if anyone would care to share their interpretation and enlighten me please do!).

But aside from that minor quibble I laughed and indeed “lolled” at “Utopia, Lol?” and would be thrilled to see something this funny win the Nebula Award for Best Short Story. ~ Katie Burton

Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones also reviewed “Utopia, LOL?” in our July 3, 2017 SHORTS column and rated it 5 stars.


And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (2017, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2017 Nebula award nominee (novella)

One of the best things about this novella is the title, which is not to be taken as faint praise ― it’s a very clever title, and I wonder if it might not be a case of the story being created just to have a place to hang it on.

I don’t really think you can spoil a title, so I’ll just note that this one was inspired by one of Agatha Christie’s best-known mysteries (And Then There Were None, of course), which tells you what kind of story it’s going to be. It also hints (I told you this was a clever title) at the high-concept conceit of the story, which is that a “quantologist,” Sarah Pinsker, has invented a way for alternate realities to interact, and invited Sarah Pinskers from a wide array of alternate realities to meet at a Sarah Pinsker convention. The point-of-view Sarah, an insurance fraud investigator, decides to attend and promptly finds herself faced with some dozens of doppelgangers whose lives have diverged more or less from each other and who are undergoing the supremely awkward process of getting to know … each other? Themselves? Herself?

One of them turns up dead, and Point-of-View Sarah determines to figure out which iteration of herself has done it and why ― a needle searching for a needle in a pile of needles. Pinsker elects to keep the story fairly light and straightforward, but it’s still a bit of a trip ― and it’s interesting to consider the points on which one’s own life has turned.

I’m not sure what to make of the choice of murder weapon, especially given that I’m reading this because it was nominated for a Nebula. It’s, shall we say, striking.

Overall, it’s fun and it’s free and there ain’t nothing wrong with either. ~Nathan Okerlund


We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick (1966, $3.99 Kindle version)

We Can Remember It for You Wholesale is better known as the movie Total Recall, which it inspired, but the movie and the original novelette have only a nodding acquaintance with each other. Douglas Quail is a boring man with a low-grade, boring job and a contemptuous wife who criticizes him daily. He has a dream: to go to Mars and see the “wonderful craters with every kind of plant-life growing deep down in them,” heh (one of the ways in which this 1966 story shows its age).

Quail’s wife seems oddly disturbed by the idea and tries to dissuade him, but Quail thinks he’s found a way to have his otherwise unaffordable dream: He visits Rekal, Incorporated to purchase a fake memory that will be implanted in his mind, entirely realistic and indistinguishable from actual memories. If anything, the fake memories are better than real ones, and as part of the package, Rekal will even supply him with fake souvenirs. While he’s at it, Quail also orders a module that also makes him a secret agent for Interplan. But when the Rekal technicians put him under, there’s a surprise in store for everyone involved.

We Can Remember It for You Wholesale is an action-packed, creative story, especially for its time. I wasn’t really on board with the twist at the end, but it’s definitely a change from the movie! As is the fact that this novelette remains firmly planted on Earth. Aside from the main twist, with which most readers probably will be familiar, the characters aren’t complex. I would say this story is more fun than deep. ~Tadiana Jones


The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard): A Tor.com Original Kindle Edition by Matthew Kressel  (Author)“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel (March 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version). 2017 Nebula award nominee (short story)

This short story by Matthew Kressel tells the tale of an man who, in his dying days, choses to move to a new planet and finish his book. Unexpectedly, he sparks up a friendship with a young girl and is delighted to find that he can share his passion for writing and hand-printing books with her.

Bizarrely, I enjoyed “The Last Novelist” as a tale of age, friendship and memory but I didn’t enjoy it as a sci fi story. The problem is, the story could really be set anywhere, and although the bits of sci-fi that were thrown in are intriguing, they don’t add to the story. I struggled to get a real sense of the planet the protagonist moves to (Ardabaab). He lives in a beach hut but his new friends live in an underwater dwelling. There are frequent references to the dastardly “Wees” who run the place and who somehow manage to use the voice of the man’s dead wife to coerce him into doing things, but we learn nothing more about them. To me such a bizarre and cruel act warranted further exploration. I also wasn’t convinced by the titular dead lizard whose decaying body acts as metaphor for the man’s demise ― it felt a bit obvious.

Like many modern sci fi stories, Kressel envisages a future society’s use of the internet and social media. The citizens of Ardabaab are usually plugged into a “neural” and can access the “wiki” at any time to look up things they don’t understand. I loved the idea of the old man and his young friend unplugging from their neurals and finding joy in a practical, long forgotten task ― the sheer joy they get from their activities is both moving and uplifting. But the actual technology of Ardabaab was poorly explained and the use of current brand names (the protagonist was born on Google Base Natarajan) felt a touch unimaginative.

I enjoyed reading “The Last Novelist” for its characters and themes … but as a sci-fi/fantasy story it’s not particularly strong. ~Katie Burton

Editor’s note: Tadiana also reviewed “The Last Novelist” in our May 8, 2017 SHORTS column and rated it 3.5 stars.


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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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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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Unbeknownst to all, including himself, NATHAN OKERLUND has been preparing for the role of "reviewer of fantasy novels" since he first read Watership Down thirty-odd years ago. He is especially fond of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman, and books that have to be read twice to be understood at all, but will happily read anything which does not actually attempt to escape the nightstand. When not occupied with the fantastic he takes brains apart to see how they work, as a postdoctoral fellow studying neurodegeneration, and supports his wife and daughter in their daily heroics.

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2 comments

  1. I liked A SERIES OF STEAKS when I read it (I especially liked those two main characters). Nice to see that it’s a finalist!

    • I agree! I see I gave Wind Will Rove a higher rating, but on emotional “really enjoyed it!” level I’d vote for A Series of Steaks.

      Katie, I read “Utopia, LOL?” a couple of times myself. Here’s what I think about the ending (and maybe you already picked up on this and your question is about something else in the ending):

      **SPOILER WARNING**

      Once Charles dinks around in the virtual reality for 11 years and realizes that he wants to live a more productive life, Allocator sends him on an interstellar probe to look for new habitats for humanity. This was Allocator’s master plan all along. Kit watches Charles go, then realizes that Allocator’s hope and plan is for her to go do the same thing. And she consents.

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