SFM: Rosenblum, Dickinson, Johnson, Smith, Schwitzgebel

Short Fiction Monday: This week’s crop of short speculative fiction stories includes a couple of highly recommended stories from prior years, as well as some very recent stories, all available on the internet for free.

Lion Walk by Mary Rosenblum (2009, originally in Asimov’s, reprinted and free online in July 2016 Clarkesworld, paperback magazine issue)

Tahira Ghani is a manager and park ranger for a Pleistocene-era wild animal park in the U.S. prairie lands, near the Rockies. Using genetic manipulation and interbreeding programs with existing animal species, gene engineers are in the process of recreating many long-extinct animals, including giant sloths, wild horses that emulate the Equus verae from a million years ago, and Pleistocene lions, which have stripes and a narrower head than modern African lions.

On her rounds of the park one night, Tahira finds the remains of a young teenage girl who was abandoned inside the park and promptly killed and eaten by the lion pride. Tahira investigates and finds out that the girl was dropped off inside the park by someone who managed to avoid setting off the park’s high tech security system and, worse, that the surveillance footage that would have shown her death by the lions was replaced in the park’s system by similar footage from five weeks earlier. Tahira is caught between the park administrator’s desire to hush up the problem as quickly as possible by putting down the lion responsible for killing the girl, and law enforcement’s and the public’s demands for more information and action against the lions and park officials. No one except Tahira seems to be really interested in digging into exactly how the girl got into the park and holding accountable those who did it. As Tahira carries out her own private investigation, the truth is revealed bit by appalling bit.

The Pleistocene-era wild animal park is a fascinating setting, with the gradual recreation of animals from a million years ago ― or, at least, our best approximation of what those animals were like. The money spent on this amazing program, and the wealth of the tourists and some of the park employees, including the genetic engineering that keeps privileged people young and healthy for far longer than is natural, contrasts starkly with the impoverished background of the young girl who was killed and of Tahira herself. In this future society, the divide between the haves and have-nots has become even more pronounced.

Tahira is a compelling and intelligent protagonist: she’s not just a survivor, but a person who is determined to see that some sort of justice is done, despite the risks to herself. I’m delighted that Clarkesworld has reprinted this 2009 novelette in its July 2016 issue, and highly recommend this read. ~Tadiana Jones


“Laws of Night and Silk” by Seth Dickinson (June 2016, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, $1.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Kavian Catamount, sorcerer of the Paik Rede, uses a deadly magical force called an abnarch to fight back the Efficate, the enemy of her people who are invading her country to take their water. The abnarch — a young, lawless wizard — is just a teenage girl who was taken from her parents as a baby and reared in absolute solitude, away from any personal connections or preconceived notions about magic. It is this cruel upbringing that gives abnarchs their particular power. But as Kavian struggles to protect and nurture her abnarch — a feral girl her own daughter’s age — she must confront herself and the losses and responsibilities she bears, both as an individual and as a citizen of the Paik Rede.

The first time I listened to “Laws of Night and Silk,” I thought a lot about Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s a famous story about a utopian city that maintains its perfection [HIGHLIGHT TO VIEW SPOILER]by one small, perpetual act of stunning injustice—the imprisonment and abandonment of a young child.

Seth Dickinson may not have had “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in mind when he wrote “Laws of Night and Silk,” but it read to me like a response or even a rebuttal. LeGuin’s story ends with the note that [HIGHLIGHT TO VIEW SPOILER] some people who are upset by the injustice of Omelas choose to merely “walk away,” a move that my students thought was cowardly. Instead of merely leaving the Paik Rede and washing her hands of the matter, Dickinson has Kavian disrupt the child-imprisoning system that undergirds the defense of the Paik Rede. This is a beautiful, effective story about responsibility and choice. ~Kate Lechler


“The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” by Kij Johnson (2007, free online at Kijjohnson.com, originally anthologized in The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales). 2008 World Fantasy Award nominee (short story), shortlisted for Hugo and Nebula awards.

What if animals could speak? An event simply called “the Change” has occurred, raising animals’ intelligence and allowing them to talk, if somewhat simply. But instead of improving the relationships between humans and their domestic animals, the Change has driven them apart. Humans feel a combination of fear and shame toward their dogs and cats, very much like the hidden guilt slaveholders may feel, and for the most part their relationships have not survived the Change for long. Cats, with more independence and “pragmatic sociopathy,” voluntarily leave humans to live on their own, but most dogs are abandoned by their owners, and suffer deeply for it.

Linna goes to North Park daily to visit with the abandoned and semi-wild dogs that now live there. She shares her lunches with them and, despite her instinctive fears of some of the wilder dogs, tries to help them when she can. In return, the dogs share their dog folklore stories with her. They tell her several stories of a dog that they call “One Dog” ― which is sometimes male and sometimes female ― and One Dog’s interactions with humans. One Dog tends to be a trickster, like Coyote in some Native American tales. When the dogs of North Park are suddenly in danger of their lives, Linna has an important choice to make.

Despite this story being told from Linna’s point of view, Linna herself is a bit of a cipher: we aren’t really told anything about her life, except her daily interactions with the dogs and how this affects her thoughts and feelings. We also aren’t told anything at all about what the Change was or why it occurred. I suspect that these were deliberate choices on Kij Johnson’s part, in order to focus more of our attention on the current plight of the dogs. Johnson uses this story to explore our human fears and limitations in how we deal with others whom we have power over.

Sometimes we think we want to know what our dogs think. We don’t, not really. Someone who watches us with unclouded eyes and sees who we really are is more frightening than a man with a gun. We can fight or flee or avoid the man, but the truth sticks like pine sap. After the Change, some dog owners feel a cold place in the pit of their stomachs when they meet their pets’ eyes. Sooner or later, they ask their dogs to find new homes, or they forget to latch the gate, or they force the dogs out with curses and the ends of brooms. Or the dogs leave, unable to bear the look in their masters’ eyes.

I tend to think that we as pet owners would do better by our dogs, by and large, if they were more intelligent and could speak to us, but perhaps that isn’t the real point. In any case, this is a painful story, but one with a note of hope to it. The brief tales of One Dog interspersed throughout this story are intriguing in how they show the gradually evolving opinions and viewpoints of dogs about themselves and their relationships with humans. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Weather” by Caighlan Smith (March 2016, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

In a world that seems to be teetering on the edge of complete breakdown, teenaged Lolly’s life consists of working in a convenience store and helping her mother care for her senile grandmother. Their small town’s few remaining inhabitants are leaving, abandoning their homes and businesses ahead of a forecasted storm, while Lolly and her mother nail boards over the windows of their house in a half-hearted attempt at protection. They’re reduced to going through the motions, waiting for something to happen and knowing that when it does, it won’t be anything good.

“The Weather” is filled with minutiae — the smell of ointment, the clashing colors of a woman’s outfit, Granny Ma’s odd utterances regarding “posts” and “followers” and “wifi” — creating a weighty, despondent atmosphere. Unfortunately, the moody richness of these details come at the expense of the framework of the story: there’s no explanation of why these characters do anything or how they’ve gotten to this vaguely futuristic-dystopian scenario in which convenience stores still exist, a laptop computer is a mysterious relic, and an ominous storm looms on the barren horizon. There’s just not enough substance to support the moody atmosphere. Overall, the story feels incomplete, and what could have been a great story is merely okay. ~Jana Nyman


“Fish Dance” by Eric Schwitzgebel (July 2016, free at Clarkesworld, paperback magazine issue)

An airborne AI taxi that Isaac Lee and his young daughter Rebecca are riding in crashes to the ground, killing Rebecca and leaving Lee with critical injuries. He later awakens in a St. Vincent’s hospital, drugged on painkillers, where he is informed that his body is irreparably damaged and will be far too expensive to keep alive. The Catholic church, to which Lee and his family belong, makes him an offer: they will record his brain’s cognitive patterns, using it as the template for a new type of AI, built into solid state, semi-sentient rosary beads. (It’s a distinctly evolved Catholic church that appears in this story.)

The best AI can’t be built from scratch. It needs a scanned human brain as template. A fully detailed scan is fatal, exposing the brain slice by slice—and even so the quality is too poor to transfer the whole personality and intelligence.

Even though only a small portion of Lee’s intelligence will survive as part of these high-tech rosary beads, Lee and his wife ― with no other feasible choices than his death ― agree, and the extensive, weeks-long preparation process begins. Their son Abe is highly enthused about this project, but Lee’s wife Sara, with millions of dollars being paid by the church in return for Lee’s agreement, begins to have second thoughts about the whole thing, and wants to save Lee in a different way. Lee himself has conflicted feelings.

It’s an intriguing concept, and Eric Schwitzgebel employs some vivid and imaginative imagery. But Abe’s thought processes and subsequent actions didn’t entirely ring true to me, and I found Lee’s drug-ridden stream-of-consciousness thoughts difficult to follow and his odd religious hallucinations distracting, if not off-putting. However, Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy, discusses his thought processes regarding the uploading of minds that went into this story on his blog, which I found deeply interesting. ~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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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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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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One comment

  1. “Lion Walk,” in particular, sounds really good, and I’ll want to re-read “The Ones Who Walk…” before tackling “Laws of Night and Silk” so I can keep an eye out for similarities. Thanks, Tadiana and Kate!

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