SHORTS: Bolander, Goss, Le Guin, Liu, Ford, Jemisin

SHORTS is our regular short fiction review column (previously SFM or Short Fiction Monday). In today’s column we review several more of the 2019 Locus award nominees in the short fiction categories.

No Flight Without the Shatter by Brooke Bolander (2018, free at Tor.com; 99c Kindle version). 2019 Locus award nominee (novelette).

No Flight Without the Shatter brings together Linnea and her Aunties Ben, Dora, and Martha at the end of the world. Linnea is recognizably human, while her Aunties are almost-so, and yet not at all. The three women found Linnea in an abandoned gas station and have been doing their best to raise her properly, teaching her how to forage for sustaining food, how to build things, and how to tell your species’ story when you are the last living survivor. But the planet is changing and the Aunties cannot stay, and Linnea must decide whether her fear of being left behind is worse than her fear of traveling into the unknown.

Brooke Bolander’s prose throughout is lushly wrought, to the point of turning this work into a prose poem rather than a short story. The land, the sea, and the air each get their chance to examine and react to the changes inflicted upon them by the encroaching tread of humanity. Meanwhile, the horrors of extinction are discussed from multiple points of view as one little girl bears witness to “the thoughtful pause before a clock’s hand flicks to midnight.” Ultimately, it’s a hopeful story, though the journey to that hope is filled with some well-deserved slings and arrows. Quietly elegiac, and highly recommended. ~Jana Nyman


Queen Lily by Theodora Goss (2018, free at Lightspeed magazine, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2019 Locus award nominee (novelette).

Little Snowdrop is banished by her jealous mother, the queen, to Looking-Glass Country on the other side of the mirror, which was also a doorway (“All magical mirrors are, as all queens are witches, and all cats can speak when properly spoken to.”). She finds herself in the dark forest, where she meets the armored Princess Rosebud, carrying a vorpal sword and searching for the Jabberwock. At the same time, back in the real world Snowdrop ― or Lily in this world ― who is in her sickbed, is told by her mother, the White Queen, that she has a visitor: Alice Liddell.

Fantasy melts into fictionalized biography in this ingenious tale of an imagined meeting between Lilia (Lily) MacDonald, adult daughter of the fantasy author George MacDonald, and Alice Liddell, who helped inspire Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. While the two women (who were the same age) visit, Alice shares her mixed feelings about Carroll. Lily, in the final stages of tuberculosis, drifts in and out of her delirious dreams of Wonderland, where she meets many familiar characters and journeys to the mountains behind the moon, at the back of the North Wind.

The edges of Lily’s real life and her travel through Wonderland blur into each other in a really marvelous way. Lily’s mother is sometimes the White Queen and sometimes a sheep; a slice of buttered bread turns into a bird (when asked politely) and flies away; Tweedledum and Tweedledee are as obnoxious and unhelpful as ever; characters recite warped versions of familiar poems in a distinctly Carroll-like way. I especially appreciated when “Jabberwocky” was mixed together with “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” but George MacDonald’s poem “Little White Lily” (with a few changed lines) is thematically right on point. Theodora Goss gives currency to this tale with Alice’s slightly bitter recollections of Charles Dodgson, who she only refers to as “he,” and with Snowdrop/Lily’s pointed reproach of the White Knight when he tells a tearful story of the fairy’s child who has him in thrall.

Goss’s prose is lyrical and dreamlike, as befits the plot and the source material, and the structure of this novelette and its nods to the Alice novels and Carroll’s writing style are absolutely brilliant. It took me two reads through, along with some research into the poems and the historical characters who appear in this story, to fully appreciate it, and I think it will most appeal to readers familiar with ― and fond of ― Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I highly recommend it! ~Tadiana Jones


“Firelight” by Ursula K. Le Guin (2018, online at The Paris Review (behind a paywall); collected in The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition). 2019 Locus award nominee (short story).

“Firelight” is Ursula K. Le Guin’s last short story, and in it she says farewell to a beloved character from a beloved series. In that vein, it seems almost churlish to review it. Really, one should just revel in its twice-bittersweet nature. Once for the chance to share some time with Ged to say goodbye, and once again for the chance to share some more time with Le Guin even as one knows there’s nothing more to come.

“Firelight” is, like many of her stories, a quiet little tale told in spare but beautiful language, nary a word wasted nor an extra one used. Ged, an old man by now, lies in bed and recalls, fitfully, some of his past adventures. The first, and the last, memory is of his lovely little ship Lookfar, which fans of the series will recall as fondly as Ged does. Vetch makes an appearance, as does his little sister. Arha too, from memory, and in her current self, Tehanu, bustling around cooking dinner and warmly taking care of Ged even as both know the end is near. Who else? Ogion, Therru, the ancient dragon Kalessin (“the color of rusted iron”), old Kurremkarmerruk from the Isle of Roke, Ged’s aunt Raki who first set him on the path toward magic.

As Ged drifts, both he and the reader get to relive old joys, old fears, old selves. And though there is sadness at its ending, since all things, all people end, there is also joy as Ged sails Lookfar “west, far past all the island. He would go on, this time, until he sailed into the other wind. If there were other shores, he would come to them. Or if sea and shore were all the same at last, then the dragon spoke the truth, and there was nothing to fear.” Which is just how one imagines Le Guin facing her own ending even as we think we had her grace and wisdom for too short a time.

In her last few years, Le Guin often said she no longer had the stamina for longer works. But it’s clear from this lovely, moving story that while she may have lost her endurance, she never lost her magic. ~Bill Capossere


“Quality Time” by Ken Liu (2018, anthologized in Robots vs. Fairies, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe). 2019 Locus award nominee (short story).

Ken Liu’s “Quality Time” appears in the Robots vs. Fairies anthology, with Ken Liu on Team Robot, though not without some qualifications. Liu’s story follows an unnamed narrator who has just taken a new job at a wonderfully-depicted tech company, weRobot. At an early HR meeting the narrator is befriended by a cynical 40-something veteran named Amy, who recognizes that the narrator, who majored in folklore and mythology, is feeling a bit out of their element. With surprising speed, though, the narrator dives right into the corporate culture and ends up helming a successful new product: The Vegnor, a do-all maintenance robot whose body is modeled on a rat’s and is imprinted with a rat’s neural patterns, which allows it to quickly and efficiently clean tough-to-reach areas like gutters, chimneys, and pipes. It also “guarded a house against unwanted pests such as the common rat by emitting an annoying ultrasonic whine . .. [or] fighting them with gnashing teeth and glinting claws made of stainless steel.”

Soon after the launch, the narrator receives an email from their new-parent sister, lamenting how she and her husband are utterly exhausted. Sensing a new market, the narrator begins work on The Para, the perfect nanny that would “replicate the self-sacrificing, participatory alloparenting groups of nature with robots.”

Both projects, despite some early success, unfortunately end up confirming the concept of unintended consequences with any new technology. While that in itself is relatively predictable, Liu puts more than enough originality into the story to offset the predictability. For instance, with the Para, he eschews the clichéd version wherein the perfect nanny is too perfect and so creates a better bond with the child than the parents do. Instead, he goes down a different but entirely plausible path. Nor does the story toss out the robot with the bathwater (or motor oil). Liu also presents a more positive result than the typical dystopian version of technology gone askew and even offers up an entirely sensible solution to the problem of unintended consequences.

The prose is smooth and effortless, and Liu invests a good amount of humor in the story, especially in the satire of the big tech corporate atmosphere. Even the names are wryly funny, “Centillion” for Google or “Bazaar” for Amazon. Star Trek: The Next Generation fans will appreciate the usage of the Tamarian language (its speakers communicate solely by metaphor) from that great “Darmok” episode, though anyone unfamiliar with it can mostly figure it out or remain befuddled by a particular line without any real impact on following the story. The narrator isn’t the most likable of characters, but given the brevity of “Quality Time,” that’s not much of an obstacle to appreciating the story, which ends up a relatively light but highly enjoyable and well-written tale. ~Bill Capossere


“The Bookcase Expedition” by Jeffrey Ford (2018, anthologized in Robots vs. Fairies, edited by Dominik Parisienand Navah Wolfe). 2019 Locus award nominee (short story).

“The Bookcase Expedition” also appears in the Robots vs. Fairies anthology, though Ford is on Team Fairies. In this slight tale, the narrator (also an author), “at death’s door and whacked out on meds,” begins to see fairies around his home. At first we get a series of random encounters, but the bulk of the story centers on a daring mission that takes a small band of courageous fairies from the bottom of a bookcase to the room’s ceiling. Their expedition is closely observed by the narrator even as he wonders at its goal, and he mourns with them the loss of several members who fall by the wayside.

Ford has an engagingly mock epic style and tone throughout the piece, as well as a surprisingly effective emotionality to it thanks to a bit of hand-wavy magic that meant “if you could see them [fairies], the longer you looked, the deeper you knew them; their names, their motivations, their secrets.” The story’s strength, though, is its sharply vivid detail, whether in the tools and clothing borne by the fairies, or the logistics of their movement, or even the details of the books they clamber over (I’m guessing the titles are chosen for a reason, but honestly I’m unfamiliar with them so have no idea as to what allusions or jokes might be being made). The story ends a bit flatly, and I’m not sure there’s much to it beyond the style and tone, but those are more than enough to carry the story on their own. ~Bill Capossere


“Cuisine des Mémoires” by N.K. Jemisin (2018, anthologized in How Long ‘til Black Future Month?). 2019 Locus award nominee (short story).

Harold is taken to a unique restaurant, Maison Laveau, as the guest of his friend Yvette. His first clue that something is odd: the menu’s first entrée reads “La Mort du Marie Antoinette”: it’s purportedly the last meal served to Marie Antoinette before she met the guillotine. Or perhaps he would prefer the roast pheasant served on the occasion that King Edward VIII of England announced his intention to marry Wallis Simpson? Or if the historic meals offered on the menu don’t appeal, there’s the customized option:

“Any meal from any occasion,” the caption read. In fine print: “Restaurant patron must be able to provide the exact date.”

Harold, taken aback by the menu (not to mention the nondisclosure agreement the hostess presents to him) grows belligerent and demands a particular meal from a memorable occasion in his life ten years earlier. And despite Yvette’s disapproval, he’s determined to unearth the secret of Maison Laveau.

Jemisin’s descriptions of these culinary miracles made my taste buds come to life: “crown roast of pork, broiled merlitons filled with a delicate crawfish-and-remoulade stuffing, honey-poached artichoke hearts …”. The secret of the kitchen of Maison Laveau was a slight letdown, but I did appreciate the sly reference to voodoo (Marie Laveau was a famous 19th century New Orleans voodoo practitioner). The slight twist at the end was an adroit reminder of what is most important about memories. ~Tadiana Jones


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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 now makes her home 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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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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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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