SFM: Sanford, Palwick, Walton, Hill, Sullivan, Kemp

Short Fiction Monday: Here are a few shorter SFF works that we read this week that we wanted you to know about. Some great finds this week!

Blood Grains Speak Through Memories by Jason Sanford (March 2016, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, free ebook available on the author’s website)

Frere-Jones Roeder is the anchor of her land, charged with its protection and maintenance. The blood grains flow through her body, sharing memories of past anchors and giving her senses knowledge of all of the life and activity on her two-league plot of land, whether plant, animal or human. The blood grains are also part of all life on her land, and even fly through the air in the form of red fairies. These grains have many additional powers, some highly ominous, that become apparent as the story develops.

The anchors, and their life-mates and children, are the only people permitted by the ubiquitous grains to stay in one place. All others are “day-fellows,” who travel in caravans from place to place, never staying more than a day or two on any one anchor’s plot of land. Day-fellows are prohibited from possessing any weapons except swords and knives, leaving them at the mercy of the land’s anchors if they overstay their welcome or break any of the grains’ rules.

Frere-Jones desperately misses her dead life-mate, Haoquin, and her son who is now a day-fellow. Her opinions and beliefs bring her into conflict with the grains on her land, and with some of the anchors on surrounding lands. Not incidentally, a teenage day-fellow, Alexnya, fed up with traveling from place to place, has been unexpectedly infected by the grains on Frere-Jones’ land. Unforeseen consequences abound ― not least, one imagines, for those who originally developed the grains, generations ago.

Jason Sanford has created a unique and compelling world in this novelette, but his method of world-building doesn’t make the setting instantly accessible. However, patience is rewarded with the gradual realization of what the blood grains in the title actually are, why they were created, and how their development has affected life on this planet. I tend to think that this is intended to be our planet Earth in the future, but Sanford never specifies whether that’s actually the case. The characters have complex motivations that are equal to the unusual setting, making this intricate SF tale a delight to unpack. ~Tadiana Jones


“Ash” by Susan Palwick (May 2016, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, purchase entire issue)

Susan Palwick’s short story “Ash” tugged at my heartstrings. This short, dense story made me think about things we love, the things we keep and the things we lose.

Penny, the main character, is a retired university professor with two cats and a house full of things she’s accumulated over the years. When she is on vacation and the cats are being boarded, the house catches fire and burns to the ground. Penny loses everything. She comes through this catastrophe with a determination to live a less cluttered life, and rebuilds a much smaller house on the property. She deliberately fights the temptation to bring new objects like books or knick-knacks into her tiny house. Somehow, though, things begin to appear, and they are old things from Penny’s life, things that were destroyed in the fire: a photograph, a pair of her mother’s earrings that was Penny’s favorite, a beloved coffee mug. Penny attempts to use a superficial magic to control which items come back (anyone who reads fantasy or has Wiccan friends will appreciate this section) but it’s clear that the magic, whatever it is, is responding to something deeper. When Penny sees what is really happening, she must make a decision that will be heartbreaking no matter which action she chooses.

Palwick’s domestic details, like a new “cat condo” for Penny’s feline companions, the description of the coffee mug, and other small details ground this story. They make palpable Penny’s losses, her grief, and the deep yearning the magic has sensed. Palwick has an eye for the right detail in the right place. In one section, she describes Penny’s expedition to REI, the outdoor outfitters, like this:

“…that huge space filled with high-tech camping and climbing and kayaking equipment, and made her way among muscular young shoppers dressed in hemp and Gore-tex, and bought herself a pair of binoculars.”

The story hit me emotionally while I was reading it, and two days later I realized I was thinking about it again, wondering what choice I would have made, in Penny’s shoes. ~Marion Deeds


“Sleeper” by Jo Walton (2014, free on Tor.com, $0.99 Kindle version)

Matthew Corley, a moderately famous British BBC director who died in 1994, is brought back to life ― in a sense ― as a computer simulation in the year 2064 by Essie, a biographer with her own agenda. Corley seems very real to the reader and to Essie, but the story make it clear to us that he is something other:

Let us say that the entity believing himself to be Matthew Corley feels that he regained consciousness while reading an article in the newspaper about the computer replication of personalities of the dead. He believes that it is 1994, the year of his death, that he regained consciousness after a brief nap, and that the article he was reading is nonsense. All of these beliefs are wrong. He dismissed the article because he understands enough to know that simulating consciousness in DOS or Windows 3.1 is inherently impossible. He is right about that much, at least.

And yet it’s easy to forget, while reading about him and his dialogue with Essie, that this simulation is not the original Matthew Corley. Essie uses an illegal phone to “talk” to Corley about the future and her questions for him, and gradually she works her way around to a significant request.

Jo Walton envisions a rather bleak future world, but the discussion between Matthew and Essie is fascinating in what it reveals about these two characters and the future Essie lives in. The little twists and ironies in this story, particularly the final one, really make it. ~Tadiana Jones


“20th Century Ghosts” by Joe Hill (2005, $0.99 Kindle version)

I could sit in this theater forever … Just sit here and watch and never leave. 

Imogene Gilchrist haunts a classic old New England movie theater that’s seemingly outlived its usefulness. Alec Sheldon owns the Rosebud theatre, home to the ghost he met for the first time when he was a boy, six days after his idolized big brother was killed in World War II. She told him, “I need someone to talk to … When I get excited about a movie I need to talk.”

This poignant story orbits the impending closure of the Rosebud and Sheldon’s initial meeting with Gilchrist. Only a select few have been fortunate enough to have seen and spoken to this ghost of the theatre’s past, and most of those have moved to careers in film, including renowned director Steven Greenburg (i.e., Steven Spielberg). With Sheldon, they come together to rescue the theater after their mass dream of the Rosebud’s closing and the haunting tear-filed cries of the lost ghost.

This very short story lent its title to a collection by Joe Hill and is now available as a stand-alone single. It’s about a ghost, but I wouldn’t consider this horror. It’s touching, brief and displays the now-popular Hill exercising his nascent craft several years before scoring with his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box. ~Jason Golomb


“Professional Integrity” by Michael J. Sullivan (2015, free at Audible)

If you haven’t read any of Michael J. Sullivan’s RIYRIA CHRONICLES yet, here’s a great introduction to the series. In this short story, thieves-for-hire Royce and Hadrian (inspired by Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser characters in his LANKHMAR series) are approached by a lovely young woman who wants to pay them to kidnap her so she can get the attention of a young man she fancies but who doesn’t yet know she exists.

After some debate about the ethics of this proposal, Royce and Hadrian take up the challenge. As the reader might expect, all is not what it seems, and soon the boys are involved in something darker than they had bargained for.

I haven’t read the RIYRIA novels yet, but I enjoyed this short strange adventure and definitely plan to pick up the book in the future. I already own the audio versions, which are read by Tim Gerard Reynolds, who also narrated “Professional Integrity.” This story is 1.3 hours long. You can find a print version in the anthology Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues. ~Kat Hooper


“Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction” by Jo Walton (2009, free on Tor.com, $0.99 Kindle version)

This short story is set in the same alternative universe as Jo Walton’s novels Farthing, Ha’Penny and Half a Crown. In this universe, the U.S. decided not to come to the aid of Great Britain in WWII. As a result, as Marion explains in her review of Ha’Penny, “Europe is largely under the control of Hitler, who is at war with Stalin for the rest. Britain negotiated a ‘peace with honor’ with Germany and has now fully embraced fascism.”

In this story, Walton turns her attention from Britain to the United States. Charles Lindbergh is the ex-president of an isolationist United States, which avoided involvement in the “European War” ― but now, in 1960, that choice two decades ago has borne fruit, and the repercussions are certainly beyond what the isolationists expected or desired. The U.S economy has never really recovered from the Great Depression, and Nazi beliefs and practices have begun to infect the American way of life.

The story is told through a series of brief vignettes, with scenes from the life of a bakery waitress, who is struggling just to get by, alternating with commentaries from people waiting in the soup kitchen line, and newspaper headlines and excerpts that add color to the story.

“Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction” is a fairly straightforward alternative history work, more of a sketch than an actual story with a substantive plot. But the genius — and the heartbreak — is in the details. It’s a very grim story, but well-told. ~Tadiana Jones


“A Better Man” by Paul S. Kemp (2015, $1.95 at Audible)

I have enjoyed Paul S. Kemp’s EGIL & NIX stories. The duo was also obviously inspired by Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. One is big, one is small. One is a thief. Both are rogues with soft hearts. They earn money by raiding tombs and doing other people’s dirty work while trying to stay out of trouble with the guilds. They also both have vocabularies and banter that’s much too intelligent than their line of work might suggest.

“A Better Man” begins as Egil and Nix are bantering with each other in a tavern and lamenting that it’s hot and they’re bored. (I think I have read this scene in at least a couple of Leiber’s stories.) When a good-looking female bodyguard walks in to ask for their help, they can’t say no, and a dangerous adventure ensues.

Most readers will probably anticipate the twist to this story from nearly the first page, but it’s still fun and it’s a good introduction to Egil and Nix. Nick Podehl, as usual, gives a great performance in the 1-hour long audio version. “A Better Man” was published in the anthology Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues. If you like it, pick up The Hammer and the Blade. ~Kat Hooper


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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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JASON GOLOMB, who joined us in September 2015, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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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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3 comments

  1. I loved 20th Century Ghost!

    Tadiana, it would be interesting to read “Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction,” in part because a section of the third novel in the series has a Japanese politician speculating about how Japan and Germany are going to carve up ownership of the US, whose economy and national identity is faltering. (And that, of course, is Walton tipping her hat to PKD.)

    • I was thinking that I’d be very interested in your take on this story, Marion, since you read and reviewed the three novels that Walton set in this same world. It’s a quick read; take a look at it when you have a little time and let us know what you think!

      I’m fine handling bleakness in small doses like these short fiction works, but I’m not sure I’m up to a whole novel’s worth of this world, let alone a trilogy. :)

      • The novels were well-written and the second one is full of wonderful theater information — and they are all very bleak until the last half of the final one.

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