SFM: Yu, Rosenblum, Bledsoe, Jemisin

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.

“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu (2011, free at Clarkesworld, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2012 Hugo award nominee and 2011 Nebula award nominee (short story)

The village of Yiwei has an uneasy truce with the many paper wasps that live in and around the village, until one day, when a boy throws a rock at a wasp’s nest, causes it to fall to the ground, and is badly stung. His angry mother scalds the fallen nest and kills the wasps inside.

In this way it was discovered that the wasp nests of Yiwei, dipped in hot water, unfurled into beautifully accurate maps of provinces near and far, inked in vegetable pigments and labeled in careful Mandarin that could be distinguished beneath a microscope.

The villagers, presumably acting out of superstition and fear, systematically kill off the other wasps until only a handful of wasps are left. This last group of wasps, led by an intrepid foundress, creates a portable nest in the form of a paper boat and floats forty miles downstream, piping sea chanteys as they go. They land in a good, fruitful place, look about them with satisfaction and, in the manner of privileged conquerors, take over the area and exact a heavy tribute from the kindly bees that were living there first.

E. Lily Yu creates a lovely story that manages to deal with serious themes of colonialism, slavery and how we treat others when we’re in a position of power, while lightening the heaviness with the story’s mythic, fable-like feel and her use of dry humor. I couldn’t help but be charmed by the many whimsical details, like the wasps’ lovely, microscopic maps and the wasp foundress entertaining the bee ambassadors, serving them nectar in paper horns. Yu claimed, in Comment #13 to this story on Clarkesworld, that because it is based on the science of wasp and bee behavior, this story is hard science fiction. The conversations and some of the details of the lives of the bees and wasps (e.g., labeling maps in Mandarin and studying philosophy) argue that it’s ultimately a fantasy, but either way it’s a delightful tale given heft by its deeper themes. ~Tadiana Jones


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

Mary Rosenblum’s “Lion Walk” originally appeared in Asimov’s in 2009. “Lion Walk” is set in a game preserve a lot like Jurassic Park, only it’s Pleistocene-era. Tahira Ghani, the park’s general manager, must navigate politics and corruption to discover how a young woman who was killed and eaten by the pride of lions in the park came to be inside the security fence when she was not part of any tour group and there is no record of a security breach.

The plot of “Lion Walk” relies heavily on standard mystery tropes and the “whodunit” was not hard to figure out, but the power of this story comes from the point of view character, Tahira, and what she reveals about her world. Tahira seems to be something of a generalist; she is not one of the geneticists who are engineering the animals on the preserve, but she knows a lot about genetics; she knows her way around rough country, she is comfortable with the animals and she understands security systems. All of this helps her solve the mystery, but Tahira spends much of her time musing about the new world being created at the park. Rosenblum makes several issues converge seamlessly: social media (remember this was originally published in 2009), genetic manipulation, wealth and privilege, and our increasing disconnection from the natural world. The park is an uneasy mixture of the wild, where some things are allowed to “take their course,” and complete artificiality. When Tahira hosts a bus tour and the tourists react with indignation that an injured animal is not going to be treated by the human staff but rather left for predators, we see the sentimentalism and disconnect in full force, just as we do when Tahira’s boss tells her that one of the lions that killed the woman must be “euthanized” even though the lion did nothing wrong. Tahira is not immune to the sentimentality herself, since it is clear she identifies with the aging alpha lioness, who is the last wild-caught African lion. Both Tahira and the lioness have carved out places for themselves. For both of them, their world is passing away.

This is a world in which other planets in the solar system have been colonized; the chasm between the uber-wealthy and everyone else has grown wider, and people can engineer animals to invent, rather than re-create, majestic creatures for their entertainment. The very best parts of this story come when Tahira is out in the park, observing and interacting with the animals. The crisp, descriptive prose and Tahira’s meditations, which are moody without being maudlin, create a visceral sense of place, and give the reader lots to chew on, such as when Tahira thinks this about justice and faith:

She had not prayed to any gods for a long time. Not since she had handed over her young daughter to the World Council Force sponsorship coordinator. Gods were like lions, they belonged in the old world.

Tahira manages to prevail, but like the old lioness, she knows her days here are numbered. Points of transitions in large systems are hard to depict, but Rosenblum shows us a fading world and a new one with deftness. I was engrossed. ~Marion Deeds

Editor’s Note: Tadiana Jones also reviewed “Lion Walk” in our July 25, 2016 SFM post and rated it 4.5 stars.


“The Key to the Coward’s Spell” by Alex Bledsoe (August 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

A man walks into a bar: a dark, dingy tavern where you might regret ordering a meal or a drink. But Eddie’s not there to drink: he’s looking for a man called Moon, who might be able to help Eddie rescue a kidnapped seven-year-old boy, the son of some friends, who’s been kidnapped from his home by a group of criminals running a child sex ring. Eddie’s sword arm has been badly injured in a fight with one of the kidnappers’ guards before our story begins, so he’s going to need help rescuing the boy, from some people who may or may not be trustworthy. He’s hoping that Moon can give him more information about the kidnappers and about a yellow gem that Eddie took from the guard he killed, which may be a key to unlocking the case.

This fantasy/noir mystery is a short story set in Alex Bledsoe’s EDDIE LACROSSE universe, about the adventures of a private investigator and “sword jockey.” I think readers who are already familiar with Eddie, from reading The Sword-Edged Blonde and subsequent novels in this series, are likely to enjoy this story the most, but it works reasonably well as a stand-alone story. The mystery isn’t particularly mysterious, but Bledsoe does a solid job of injecting the noir detective tropes into the swords-and-sorcery fantasy genre. There’s the obligatory twist, as well as a nod or two to diversity, like this one:

I looked up at her; it took a moment, but I saw that despite her entirely feminine way of moving, she was, under it all, really a man dressed as a woman. But even as I thought it, I knew that was wrong; in a world where a goddess could hide in plain sight as a mortal queen, who was I to say what was real? She was what she said she was, and so she was a woman, full stop.

It’s extraneous to the story, but I understand the sentiment behind its inclusion, and many will applaud it.

While the story deals with a distressing subject, kidnapping children to sell as sex slaves, it’s handled in a manner that’s not unduly explicit, and it’s easy to cheer for Eddie and his helpers here. In any case, I’m interested in reading more about a world where a palm-sized gem is considered a small jewel. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Brides of Heaven” by N.K. Jemisin (2007, free at Transcriptase)

A group of Muslim women is stranded alone on a colony planet after all of the men died when the coldsleep technology in the ship failed on the men’s side. The three young male children who had survived the disaster because they were in the women’s unit with their mothers, subsequently died in tragic mishaps on the fertile but deadly planet. The women try to go on with life when all hope of continuing their group with children has died as well, finding different ways to cope. One of their number, Dihya, driven almost to distraction by the death of her son, leaves the colony on an illicit excursion. Upon her return, she breaks into the purification facility and attempted to sabotage the water supply. During her subsequent interrogation, she tells her story and makes a confession.

The premise of this science fiction tale isn’t entirely new and the ending may not surprise all readers, but it’s well-told and the Muslim culture adds an unusual element. N.K. Jemisin thoughtfully explores the various ways in which devout women might react to a tragedy that negates one of the basic purposes of their lives, having and rearing children. Keeping the faith means different things to different women, and there’s an intriguing note of ambiguity to Dihya’s actions and decisions. ~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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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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4 comments

  1. Thanks for letting me know about the Eddie story. I had missed it!

  2. I loved the “Wasps and Bees” story without really understanding it when I read it. I loved the maps. I also liked the diversion in the story, referenced in the title, about the colony of bees that tries to live without a queen. The imagination in that story took my breath away.

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