SFM: Lemberg, Brockmeier, Das, Bishop, Bolander

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few of the stories we read this week. 

“The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar” by Rose Lemberg (March 2016, free at Uncanny Magazine, Kindle magazine issue)

In this lush story, Lemberg shows us a long-distance romance developing between two makers-of-things. Maru lives in the desert and sings sand into glass; Vadrai lives in the Northern woods and uses deepnames to inscribe images into jewels. Each is enchanted with the work of the other, and through letters — over a four-year span, because letters must travel with merchant caravans — they fall in love.

What I absolutely loved about this story was how rooted in natural landscapes it was. Maru tells Vadrai about the desert, full of wind and the “striated bones of forgotten beasts.” Vadrai in turn shares images of their home in the Northern forest, “the small, snow–hopping birds and the children running outside, running even though clothed in such enormous garments” and a wonder which Maru has never witnessed: trees.

I also loved the idea that two creativities, even of different natures, enhance each other. Once together, Maru and Vidrai create marvelous things, and each knows “at once the sweep of glass wings and the fire that births it, and the small and scrupulous jeweler’s craft that imbues the glass with shapes both intricate and golden.” Reading about this aspect of creation and romance was utterly charming. ~Kate Lechler


“The Invention of Separate People” by Kevin Brockmeier (2015, free at Lightspeed Magazine), Kindle magazine issue)

This very short story (about 20 minutes for the audio version) tells of a time when all human consciousness was connected so that everyone knew what everyone else in the world was doing and thinking. Since this was the normal way of things, nobody questioned it, except for one man who wondered what it would be like if people could be separate from each other. He thinks the world would seem bigger and be more mysterious. One day he is thinking about a woman on the other side of the world when he has a minor accident and she momentarily leaves his mind. He is fascinated by this loss and tries to figure out why it happened.

This interesting and unusual story is about the risk and excitement of sharing our lives with other people. I enjoyed the Lightspeed podcast narrated by Stefan Rudnicki. ~Kat Hooper


Breaking Water by Indrapramit Das (February 2016, free at Tor.com, Kindle version)

Krishna, an Indian man, finds a woman’s corpse when he wades into the river for his morning bath. He pulls the naked body out of the river and leaves it on the shore, despite the pleas of a priest, who importunes him to dispose of the body properly. Later that day, however, the problem takes care of itself: the woman’s corpse reanimates and walks along the shore, pecked at by crows, the first sign of a worldwide zombie plague. All dead bodies who were not cremated are reanimating, trying to escape from their coffins, or staggering out of the river where their murdered bodies had been dumped:

Some were only days old, looking almost alive but for their slack faces like melting clay masks, their lethal wounds and bruises, their paled and discoloured skin, their jellied eyes and the sometimes lovely frills of clinging white crustaceans in their hair, the tiny flickers of fish leaping from their muddy mouths. Others were black and blue, bloated into terrifying caricatures of their living counterparts, who watched in droves from behind the lines of fearful policemen at the top of the ghat steps.

When Krishna hears that the dead are walking, he feels guilty about how he neglected the woman’s body and rushes off to find it, impelled to do what he can to help her and the other risen dead. He claims the undead woman as his wife, despite her decomposing state and the pressure from police to cremate her, and even allows her to bite him and infect him, staying alive through a constant antibiotic IV drip.

Krishna becomes a locally famous guru, and is later visited by an investigative journalist who is the voice of the rest of this story, as she and we attempt to understand why Krishna is acting as he does: is it selfishness, seeking fame and gifts, or altruism? How are we to treat our own dead family members … and how do we ourselves want to be treated when we die?

This novelette is an unusual take on the zombie apocalypse, from an Indian and rather philosophical point of view. The grotesqueness of the walking dead is a constant, explicitly described visual image, as their bodies continue to deteriorate in nauseating ways, but their plight is nevertheless related with sympathy. Breaking Water raises questions about our humanity without offering any satisfactory answers, leaving me with an unsettled feeling. ~Tadiana Jones


Rattlesnakes and Men by Michael Bishop (2015, temporarily free at Asimov’s (PDF). Nominated for a 2015 Nebula award (novelette).

Wylene and Reed Godfrey and their daughter Celeste move to the town of Wriggly, Georgia when a tornado wrecks their Arkansas home, at the invitation of Reed’s old army buddy Dusty Shallowpit. The names the town and his friend are portentous: Wriggly has an ordinance that every houseful must own a rattlesnake … for personal protection. In fact, most men in Nokuse County proudly pack guns rattlesnakes on their person. But not to worry: these are genetically modified BioQuirked rattlesnakes, which will imprint and bond with each person in the household, so they will protect them and only bite unwanted intruders. The snakes are supposed to be able to distinguish intruders from family and invitees by their “sensitivity to the telltale anxiety of strangers come for evil purposes (based on their body temps, reeks, and dicey mannerisms).”

Dusty and his father, Jasper Shallowpit, proudly present the Godfrey family with their very own rattlesnake, thus touching off a major dispute between Reed, who just wants to get along and doesn’t want to annoy his friends, and Wylene, who wants nothing to do with this insanity. The townspeople are pretty much all solidly on the side of snake-owning, and claim that they’re completely safe when handled correctly, but the town’s doctor, Lakshmi Chakraborti, informs Wylene that there have been several deaths from snakebite, which are hidden from public notice by the local authorities. Dr. Chakraborti and her followers begin publicly protesting against the snakes, leading to conflict with the Nokuse Rattlesnake Alliance, or NRA. The anti-snake group is threatened, harassed, and occasionally attacked, by rattlesnake of course.

It took me only a few paragraphs to realize that Rattlesnakes and Men is a satire, and a very heavy-handed one at that, railing against the U.S. gun-owning and -worshipping culture. There’s a fair amount of humor in it, but underlying all is the serious issue of the dangers of firearms. The connection to speculative fiction is a thin one, based solely on the supposed genetic modification and ownership of rattlesnakes. The characters are one-dimensional and the story starts to seriously drag after a while.

Because of this, and because I disagree fundamentally with giving nominations or granting awards based primarily on the political correctness of an issue addressed by a literary work, I was initially going to rate this two stars. However, as I researched further, I became aware that the author’s son Jamie Bishop, a German professor, was one of the seventeen people killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Bishop and his wife have been gun-control advocates ever since. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Bishop, who discusses his battles with gun ownership advocates and legislators. (Amusingly, this article reveals that several of the characters’ names are word plays on people Bishop actually tangled with: for example, Dusty Shallowpit is based on Dustin Hightower, a Georgia state representative, and state Rep. Alan Powell, one of the authors of the “guns everywhere” bill, shows up via an anagram as Newell Alpo.) Rattlesnakes and Men was born out of Bishop’s frustrations and personal pain. While this alone doesn’t save this story for me, it does give it a lot more heft and value. ~Tadiana Jones


And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead by Brooke Bolander (2015, free at Lightspeed Magazine, Kindle magazine issue). Nominated for a 2015 Nebula award and 2016 Hugo award (novelette).

Rack is a cybercriminal mastermind and Rhye his assassin sidekick. When gangsters do something terrible to Rack, Rhye is the only person who can possibly save him, and to do it, she’ll have to go into cyberspace. Once in there, she will have to battle a security system designed by Rack himself ― possibly the only thing in the cyber world or the physical world that may be able to best her.

Brooke Bolander’s And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead has great action sequences, and I really liked the description of the cyber-world. Overall, though, I thought this was a conventional story that lacked a fresh take or new insights. The plot twists were not surprising, and in fact the final twist would have been a great beginning for a story I might have enjoyed more.

Rack and Rhye are both cyborgs, human-like but nonhuman. I wish the cyborgs had experienced the world in a way notably different from humans. Instead, the story plays it safe: the cyborgs are part of an exploited underclass. Rhye is a tough, violent and damaged street kid with trust issues, and Rack is a caring tech-genius. These are characters we have seen before and I wish their “cyborgness” had been more of a real issue.

Bolander’s choice of narrative style stands out for its cultivated harshness and a lot of foul language. It really is a style choice, and for me it worked most of the time, except for when it substituted for character development. Rhye works best for me when she is in action, not when she’s snarling F-bombs at the bad guys.

I didn’t like this particular story very much, but I can see Bolander’s talent, and I would certainly seek out something else of hers to read. ~Marion Deeds


I viewed this as a sort of unconventional love story, complete with cyberspace, body changing, and loads and loads of really bad language. Bad language doesn’t usually trouble me, but in this story it was so over the top that it served the sole purpose of punctuation. It added nothing to the story, and I’m left wondering why Bolander chose to tell her story this way.

I agree with Marion that the description of the cyber-world was great, and full of well-described, exciting action. I wanted to know a lot more about how these cyborgs worked, and how they lived and died. I wanted to know a lot more about how one’s consciousness operated in the cyber-world, and what happened to one’s body — and especially one’s brain — when one made that jump. There was a lot of promise here, but the execution was lacking.

While I think this story shows promise, then — and, like Marion, would be interested in reading more work by Bolander — I don’t think this particular story is award-worthy. I’m surprised, in fact, that it got a nomination. ~Terry Weyna


Marion and Terry covered all of the salient points: sure, the cyber-world is interesting, and I wish more information had been given to the reader regarding that aspect of the story. Imagine all of the backstory that could have been explored rather than constant repetition of profanity! It’s not that I have a problem with profanity — I’d be severely restricting my own vocabulary if I did — but when it seems that every sentence has an expletive of some kind, I get bored, because my interpretation is that the author is more invested in the perceived shock value of certain words than telling a good story with compelling characters. When it comes to this story, I’m not impressed, and I have absolutely no idea how or why it was nominated for a Nebula. ~ Jana Nyman

 

I’ve been trying to read all of the 2015 Nebula short fiction nominees, but I had to give this one a pass. In the first four paragraphs alone there were about a dozen F-bombs (I counted), along with a violent shootout with brains getting blown out, which was too much even by my semi-relaxed standards. I quickly decided that this story is not for me. ~Tadiana Jones


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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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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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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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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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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4 comments

  1. I have read articles by Michael Bishop about the loss of his son in that mass shooting and it is heart-breaking. I don’t think I would like the story, though. While I understand the impulse, I wish it had more of a story to it.

    On the other hand, Breaking Water sounds like “message fiction” too, and it’s about zombies… but it sounds fascinating and I really want to read it.It’s all in the approach, I guess.

    • Men and Rattlesnakes isn’t really much of a story, more of a scream of frustration. Totally understandable, though, as you say.

      In Breaking Water, the “message” is subtle enough, and imbued with enough uncertainty, that I liked it much better. I’d be interested in your thoughts if you read it.

      I really enjoyed seeing everyone’s different takes on “And You Shall Know Her…” It would have been perhaps more interesting if there had been more of a difference in opinions, but great minds think alike. :)

  2. Oh, I wanted to add that I am really liking Rose Lemberg’s stories and her magical system.

    • It’s inventive, isn’t it? I love when an author puts their creativity and imagination on full display.

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