SHORTS: Wong, Langford, Harrison, Garrity, Jemisin

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. A couple of the stories reviewed this week are variations on Borges’ concept of the Library of Babel. 

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong (March 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Two sisters with incredible powers are separated by more than miles. In “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” one tries desperately to stop the world from ending, while the other triggers everything crumbling down.

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” is a breathtaking short story. The prose glued my eyes to every word of sisters Melanie and Hannah’s struggle to regain some sort of order and control in their lives. Hannah’s strife is immediate and heartbreaking, whereas Melanie’s trials come together slowly but no less powerfully, because we get to know Melanie’s life through Hannah’s eyes. Rather than the degree of separation lessening the impact of what unfolds, it strengthens it. The prose is pivotal to the story and makes the emotional impact of the sisterly bond between the two girls deeper.

Given that I don’t often read prose like Wong displays in “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, I had to read the story multiple times to get a real sense of what was going on. Each read-through lent more detail and insight, and ultimately made the story better for me. It is equal parts gut-wrenching and beautiful, and well worth the time to read and digest all it has to offer. ~Skye Walker


“Graffiti in the Library of Babel” by David Langford (2010, free online at More Red Ink, anthologized in Is Anybody Out There? and Year’s Best SF 16)

I recently read and reviewed Ficciones, a classic anthology of literary fantasy written by Jorge Luis Borges, which includes his most famous story, “The Library of Babel,” about a universe consisting solely of a virtually infinite library of connected hexagonal rooms containing books with every possible combination of 25 letters and punctuation marks in 410 pages. Coincidentally, I also recently ran a search for online speculative fiction containing the word “Library” in the title on the Free Speculative Fiction Online website; the results included three stories that clearly use Borges’ Library of Babel as an inspiration. I read all three and found two of them worth reviewing in this column. This story, “Graffiti in the Library of Babel,” was my favorite.

Dr. Ceri Evans, an academic in the area of information theory, is temporarily assisting with the Total Library project, which entails assembling all world literature and knowledge in electronic format in a secure underground facility in Switzerland. The head of the TotLib project, Dr. Joseph Ngombi, comes to Ceri with a puzzling problem: some unknown persons have, apparently randomly, inserted electronic tags in many of the volumes in their library. Joseph and his staff have already ruled out hackers (the library is totally isolated from the Internet) and student pranksters. Now they’re wondering whether, as Ceri states, “the Library is under attack through the kind of acausal channel I’ve discussed in my more speculative papers”. Or, to put it more bluntly, whether aliens are somehow inserting these electronic tags in our literature to communicate with humanity. Ceri and Joseph try to figure out if the tagged phrases contain a message, and if so, how they should respond.

“Graffiti in the Library of Babel” initially struck me ambiguous and a little disjointed. But as the story unfolded and the premise became clear to me, it thoroughly engaged me with both its imaginative plot and the literary and somewhat flirtatious banter between Ceri and Joseph. This story raises some interesting questions about the difficulties and tricks involved in communication, not only with aliens but between the two main characters. A surprising twist toward the end raises the stakes, as well as some interesting questions about the future. And I have this story to thank for introducing me to the immortal phrase “’Klaatu barada nikto.” ~Tadiana Jones


“Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel” by Shaenon K. Garrity (2011, free at Strange Horizons)

So, it turns out that the great and (for all practical purposes) infinite Library of Babel has many branch libraries on Earth, which are also virtually infinite. These branch libraries aren’t quite as useless as the main library: governed by some unseen force, each of them tends to specialize in a particular literary work. As Bev, the narrator, points out:

Which is larger: all possible numbers, or all possible even numbers? Logically, they’re the same size. A fraction of an infinite set is still infinite, isn’t it? By the same logic, it’s possible for an infinite library in which every other book is, say, Stephen King’s Cujo to still contain all possible books, same as the main library. It’s just that you stand a 50% chance of getting Cujo.

 

I’m only using Cujo as an example. As you know, we did not work at an infinite library where every other book is Stephen King’s Cujo. That library is in El Paso.

Bev is a librarian at the branch Library of Babel in Dublin, Ohio, where roughly 72% of books are different versions of Moby-Dick: both old and new (including “a dog-eared Tor Classics paperback printed in 1996, signed by Herman Melville ‘with love to Kelly’ “), in various languages, some with alternate endings or sex scenes, and so forth. Bev and the other librarians there work hard to make the library more convenient for patrons, bringing the more legible versions of Moby-Dick to the rooms near the entrance of the library. But now the Dublin City Council has voted to cut off funding to their local Branch Library of Babel. The librarians are trying to figure out what to do, and whether they can save their library.

Shaenon K. Garrity plays quite a bit with concepts of infinity in this story ― though that didn’t sit quite right with me, since Borges’ Library of Babel isn’t truly infinite. It actually contains a finite number of books, although that number is, to be fair, unimaginably huge. That conceptual issue aside, I enjoyed “Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel.” Garrity relates this tale with humor, as well as compassion for the problems facing libraries and the people who work in them and love them. ~Tadiana Jones


Sideswiped by Kim Harrison (2015, 99c Kindle version)

At a university for time travelers and those with related talents, called “drafters,” and the people who anchor drafters back to reality after they shift backwards in time, Silas and his drafter girlfriend Summer meet Peri Reed, who is the main character in Kim Harrison’s related 2015 novel, The Drafter. Silas is a technical whiz, and is already unhappy about the way the system is treating him, and about his pending forced separation from Summer when she graduates and will go to work for the government with another anchor. When things go wrong during a practical final exam for Summer and some other drafters, Silas is talked into using his computer talents to fix the problem.

Kim Harrison has created an intriguing world, with a very interesting twist on time traveling: those with the talent to draft are limited to rewinding time within a limited geographic area, and can travel back no more than about a minute. While they’re repeating time, they can remember what happened the first time and pursue a different outcome, but once they catch up to the original time, the drafter forgets everything during their drafting period in both timelines, and relies on their anchor to bring them back up to speed.

Conceptually not everything made sense to me; for example, sometimes other people remember the prior reality and sometimes they don’t; the issue is handwaved with the explanation that time is “weird stuff”. Also, most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, but that’s offset by a fast-paced plot with lots of action. My biggest issue is that this isn’t really a complete story by itself; the key plot threads are left to be resolved in The Drafter. This novella cost only 99c, but really it’s just a teaser for the novel and, in my opinion, these kind of stories should be given away for free.

Sideswiped wasn’t compelling enough to motivate me to buy a copy of The Drafter, but I’ll probably pick up a copy of it at the library sometime. ~Tadiana Jones


“The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin (Sept. 2016, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

I was delighted to see a new online fantasy short story on Tor.com by the talented N.K. Jemisin. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t to my taste, but I do think it’s likely to appeal to many readers.

New York City is in the process of being literally “born,” as all great cities must be when they get sufficiently old and large. A person is magically chosen by the city as its midwife, to sing and help it through the birthing process. The narrator, a homeless, gay African American, is mysteriously chosen for this process. He’s resistant to the idea, but as the song and pulse and birth pangs of the city become more compellingly real to him, he starts to get serious about what’s happening ― especially when he begins seeing terrifying enemies closing in, who are trying to kill both him and the city.

I thought the concept was a little thin, but Jemisin explores it well, and the narrator’s rough life on the edges of society feels very real. “The City Born Great” does include a very hefty dose of social justice issues: not only is a minority character the hero, but police are the evil villains out to choke the life of the city and our narrator. The message is not subtle. The story is also liberally sprinkled with more F-bombs than I could count, which tends to be a turn-off for me personally, but it fits the world Jemisin has created. The story does pack a punch, and the form the villains take on as they relentlessly pursue the narrator is both imaginative and chilling. ~Tadiana Jones


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SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @cskyewalker.

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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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4 comments

  1. Going to read the Alyssa Wong story now, I’ve read her before and loved her – sounds like another winner. And as the Library of Babel was my favourite of the stories in Ficciones (not just because I understood it I promise) I should probably read those too!

  2. Skye, I’m finding that I really enjoy all of Alyssa Wong’s fiction (that I’ve read so far) and I’m glad you liked “A Fist of…” too.

    • I think I should get exploring some of her other stories then :)

      Also just realized today that I might get to meet her, because she is one of the guests at NerdCon: Stories this weekend!

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