SFM: Vaughn, Brennan, Campbell, Anders

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

“Doctor Kitty Solves All Your Love Problems” by Carrie Vaughn (2001, originally published in Weird Tales 324 (Summer 2001), free on the author’s website)

Kitty Norville is a radio DJ with a late night call-in show, focusing on questions dealing with the supernatural: werewolves, vampires, witches, psychics, etc., in a world where these types of beings have come out to the public. Most of her callers want help with relationship concerns, like the caller who discovered her husband was secretly a werewolf. But one night a caller announces to her, “I know what you are, and I’m coming to kill you.” The caller, Cormac, a bounty hunter, accuses Kitty of being a dangerous werewolf, and informs her that he’s in the lobby and heading up to her radio booth as they speak. In fact, Kitty actually is a werewolf, though she’s never publicly admitted it. The police won’t get there in time to help her, and Kitty has only minutes to decide what to do: Run? Hide? Or stay on the air and try to talk Cormac out of his plan? If she stays, she’s taking her life into her hands, but she’ll never have a more exciting radio show!

I first ran across “Doctor Kitty Solves All Your Love Problems” online several years ago, and was completely entranced by this brief but tension-filled tale and the urban fantasy world Carrie Vaughn created in it. In fact, I immediately went and ordered a copy of Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Vaughn’s first novel, which incorporates and builds off of this short story. I didn’t feel like the full-length novel entirely lived up to the promise of this original story, but “Doctor Kitty Solves All Your Love Problems” was one of the earliest urban fantasies I read that got me interested in the genre. ~Tadiana Jones


“To Rise No More” by Marie Brennan (Sept. 2016, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)

“To Rise No More” is a clever story. The reader is eased into a pretty tale about a little girl who meets a fairy in the wood and wants to work out how to fly. The girl isn’t interested in magically flying; she wants to study the wings of the fairy and figure out how to recreate them herself. It becomes clear that the girl is good at math ― and that’s the first clue.

As the story progresses we learn that this little girl is in fact Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke, and a phenomenal mathematician in her own right. She is widely believed to be the first ever computer programmer. Suddenly the little girl’s insistence that she can work out the mechanics of flying takes on new significance.

“To Rise No More” charts Ada’s young life and her relationship with her fairy friend. Brennan craftily works in details about the real Ada’s life and that of her famous parents, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the historical characters just as I enjoyed the obviously fictional elements of the story. By all accounts the marriage between Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke was a dismal failure. Milbanke wholeheartedly rejected Byron’s romanticism and, in her opinion, his insanity. In a bid to drive out any trace of her father Lord Byron, Anne ensured that Ada received a full education in mathematics. In this story the young Ada is determined to reconcile the opposing views of her parents and to find a way in which both math and her father’s irrationality might be molded together to become far greater than the sum of their parts. The irrationality in this case is represented by the fairies and Ada’s ability to see them.

At times I felt this story lost its way, the weaving together of fact and fiction slightly jarring, but as a whole it was cleverly done and an intriguing, magical take on the work of Ada Lovelace. ~Katie Burton


“The High Lonesome Frontier” by Rebecca Campbell (Sept. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

In 1902, composer Freddie Weyl, inspired by the moons that have recently been discovered orbiting other planets in our solar system, and thinking of the canals on Mars and the webs on Venus seen through the telescopes of that day, asks himself, Where does that water run? His question becomes the title of a song that eventually is (wrongly) believed by most listeners to be an Appalachian folk ballad. The song is recorded by singer Lily Gibbs, who in her later years is taped singing the song in a Vancouver club. Copies of that tape are passed down by families through the years, haunting those who listen to it, even those traveling in outer space.

Somewhere out there someone—a sort of person we can’t imagine—could raise their hand or whatever into space and use the same sort of tech to catch the thin, ancient hiss of a human voice, stretched to nothing by distance, but persistent in the darkness. We’re so far gone now, out past the planets, in the emptiness between home and the nearest stars, and it’s comforting to think of that woman, outracing us all into the black. Where, she’s still asking, does that water run? Lily, high and lonesome, spilled out past the dark rim of the solar system, and into the emptiness beyond.

“The High Lonesome Frontier” is more of a mood piece than a plot-driven story. Told, fittingly, in a lyrical style, it focuses on the effect of this one song that resonates through the years, moving its listeners to dream of what lies beyond. The structure of this story, with its brief scenes through the decades to an uncertain future, and then back again to the early 1900s, is reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. “The High Lonesome Frontier,” with its short length, can’t match the depth and ambition of Cloud Atlas, but it’s an intriguing creation. ~Tadiana Jones


“Power Couple (Or ‘Love Never Sleeps’)” by Charlie Jane Anders (Sept. 2016, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

John and Willa are college students who are deeply in love, spending every night together their senior year. But when John heads to law school and Willa to medical school in different states, the separation takes a toll on their relationship. They feel like their connection is unique and irreplaceable, but that they’re just at the wrong point in their lives to make their relationship really work. Then Willa has a visit with a medical friend and colleague who’s in the cryonics field, and comes back to John with a unique proposal: John will go into medical suspension for seven years while Willa finishes med schooling and residency, with John in his metal tube in her apartment during the entire process, like some weird statue. Then when Willa is finished with her residency, they’ll turn the tables, and she’ll be frozen while John finishes law school and starts his career. Fourteen years from now, they’ll be just seven years older and set with their careers, ready to live wherever we want. Of course, things don’t work out as planned.

There’s a not-entirely-subtle message here about the drive to succeed and the toll it can take on people and relationships. But I simply couldn’t get behind the basic premise of the plot, and its weakness ruined my enjoyment of this story. Willa’s grand plan never made any logical sense to me. Additionally, whatever benefits it might conceivably have had are so clearly outweighed by the potential drawbacks that when things went south ― although not, admittedly, in any of the ways I had foreseen ― it felt predictable and flat. ~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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KATIE BURTON, who joined us in September 2015, is a solicitor in London and now an aspiring 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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3 comments

  1. Now I REALLY want to read the Ada Lovelace story!

    • It’s worth reading, Marion! I read it while I was editing this post. I also read two more good short stories that mix historical facts and fantasy, one by Carrie Vaughn about Catherine of Aragorn while she was married to Henry VIII’s older brother Arthur, and another by Rosamund Hodge that seemed to me to be replacing WWI with a war between humans and faeries. I didn’t have time to write reviews for them this week, but next week I’ll post them.

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