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 Cage,” a stand-alone short story by A.M. Dellamonica, was published a few years ago on Tor.com; I read it a while ago, re-read it recently, and am happy to report that it was just as enjoyable the second time around. Jude is a general contractor in East Vancouver; while visiting the local library she runs into Paige Adolpha, the twin sister of a recently-murdered werewolf and newly-minted caregiver of her orphaned nephew, Chase. Paige needs help sound-proofing her basement for what she calls “a recording studio,” an obvious lie; teeny-weeny lycanthrope Chase needs to be well-socialized as a pup so that a nearby werewolf pack will take him on later. Meanwhile, Richard Deenie, who murdered Paige’s sister Pamela, is on trial, and none too happy about it.
Dellamonica builds tension well; Deenie’s friends are serious creeps, and they become more threatening as months go by, but Jude’s friends have a lot of fun forcing her to admit the potential for a great relationship between herself and Paige. There’s also a recurring theme of communities banding together in times of trouble, particularly when they share common enemies: gun-crazy fiends who see nothing wrong with stalking pregnant women, and a police force divided on whether lycanthropes deserve protection equal rights. In the end, I thought this story was charming and sweet, just like a baby werewolf. ~Jana Nyman
This nominee for the 2015 Nebula award begins as a Pakistani folk tale type of fantasy. The narrator is a young boy (later young man) born in the U.S. who is entranced by his immigrant grandfather’s tales of a destitute Pakistani princess who befriended the grandfather when he was young. The princess’ small tea stall outside the walled city of Lahore is looked over (in more ways than one) by a jinn who lives in a nearby eucalyptus tree. When the tree and the tea stall are both destroyed by a fire, the Mughal princess moves far away, but tells her young friend of something secret buried under the stump of the eucalyptus tree ― something that is not intended for human eyes.
When his grandfather later dies, the grandson, now a professor of comparative mythology, reads his grandfather’s journal and becomes obsessed with the idea of going to Pakistan to track down what actually happened with his grandfather and the princess… and to try to find out what was hidden under that eucalyptus tree.
Pakistani characters and culture are in the forefront of this novella, giving it an unusual and highly creative flavor. I didn’t notice on first read that, although the grandfather’s stories are about a pauper princess, the title of this novella refers to the “Pauper Prince,” an interesting choice that’s indicative of a plot turn later in the story. This is also a rather mind-bending turn from folk tale to metaphysical science fiction with cosmic implications. I’m not sure I completely followed it there at the end, but I give it major props for breaking the mold and challenging my brain. ~Tadiana Jones
“Consciousness kind of sucks.”
Twelve alien spaceships have landed in North America. So far the aliens seem to be peaceful, but they haven’t introduced themselves and it’s not clear what their intentions are. After several months, one human came out of each ship claiming to be someone who was abducted by the aliens as a child and is now functioning as a translator for their benign captors. When one of the translators requests a driver for a cross-country tour, a woman named Avery is hired to secretly escort a translator named Lionel and one of the aliens.
As Avery gets to know Lionel, before she is allowed to meet the alien whom she transports in the back of her bus, she thinks he seems like an alien. After all, he was raised in an utterly different culture. But when Lionel explains what the alien is actually like, she realizes how much she and Lionel have in common after all.
This isn’t really the point of the story, though. It’s about consciousness, but I don’t want to say too much so as not to spoil it. Lionel doesn’t get the neuroscience, which is an important part of the story’s premise, quite right, but that’s forgivable. The ideas are interesting and I loved the ending (though I saw it coming). “Touring with the Alien” asks some good questions about intelligence and self-awareness, and the story has some interesting metaphorical possibilities. It’s also really creepy!
“Touring With the Alien” is available free online at Clarkesworld Magazine. I subscribe to the Clarkesworld podcast, so I listened to Kate Baker read the story to me. She did a great job. If you agree, please consider donating so they’ll continue to bring us great stories that are so easily accessible. ~Kat Hooper
A decades-long, debilitating war between the countries of Gaant and Enith has ended. Calla Belan of Enith travels to Gaant to visit Major Valk Larn, an injured Gaantish officer she had once befriended while serving as a military nurse, and to play a few more games of chess with him. Playing chess with someone from Gaant is nearly impossible because everyone from this country is a telepath, while those from Enith are not.
It’s a bit of an iffy premise, particularly where no attempt is made to explain how or why everyone in one country is a telepath while no one in the neighboring country is, but Carrie Vaughn takes the idea and runs with it. She does a great job of exploring what it would be like to fight a war with telepaths (for one thing, it’s difficult to keep them as prisoners of war), to visit a land of telepaths … and to try to play chess with one. Yet Calla does figure out a way to play a chess game of sorts with Valk, who can read all of her conscious thoughts. Chess becomes an iconic symbol of the relationship between Calla and Valk, and of the fraught international relations between Gaant and Enith.
The background of two war-weary societies, trying to find a way to co-exist in peace, and the flashbacks to earlier encounters of Valk and Calla, reveal the physical and psychological costs of their war and add depth to this moving and thoughtful tale. ~Tadiana Jones
Tess, a free-lance reporter who is Hispanic, lesbian and pregnant, has an opportunity that may make her career: she has been given the job of investigating a new sexually transmitted disease that has started spreading in the last six years. Gamete Diploidy Syndrome, or GDS, is passed from men to women, but the men are just carriers. The women who get it will suddenly and involuntarily start reproducing asexually: the ova carry the mother’s full set of genes, so every time she ovulates, she may become pregnant, with the baby being a clone of the mother. Men who contract GDS develop diploid sperm, and sexual contact with a man who has GDS alters the woman’s gametes. Moreover, since diploid sperm are nonviable, all men who contract GDS are permanently sterile. Taken to its logical conclusion, GDS could lead to the extinction of males.
Tess interviews various physicians and politicians about the nature and potential ramifications of GDS, but her personal Holy Grail is an interview with Candace, a highly elusive young woman who contracted GDS through rape, had four (clone) daughters and was pregnant with a fifth when her fundamentalist preacher forced Candace to have an abortion and sterilized her young daughters. Tess’ own fears for her and her partner’s unborn child, fertilized with anonymous sperm from a sperm bank that has a small but discernible risk of carrying GDS, inform her thoughts and her investigation.
The premise of The New Mother is great and Fischer’s writing is solid, but ultimately it disappointed me. It’s great at posing questions about the potential long-term effects of GDS on society, but ends without really answering any of them. It expends much of its energy in taking multiple potshots at the right end of the political spectrum, which may gratify some liberals but annoyed me. ~Tadiana Jones
Inspired by World of Warcraft, Kameron Hurley’s “The Light Brigade” takes place in a future United States that is ruled by a greedy corporation that has enslaved its workforce. The corporation also employs soldiers who fight the aliens that attacked eight million or its workers in San Paulo. The aliens used a technology that can turn people into light to move them to some other place, and now the corporate army is using the same technology to fight back.
Our protagonist is a soldier in that war, turning into light and moving from front to front to fight the treacherous aliens. At first (s)he feels patriotic and heroic, but when (s)he starts experiencing déjà vu, (s)he begins to question the narrative that the corporation has been building and wonders what would happen if war was declared but no soldiers showed up to fight. The story ends with a twist that makes the whole thing feel like a Möbius strip.
“The Light Brigade” is interesting, but for such a short story, the social commentary about a greedy corporation ruining the environment, taking over the media, spewing xenophobic propaganda, and enslaving the populace was just a little too heavy-handed and cynical for my taste:
“…you think you’re brave, so you carry out your orders. You do it even if you know what the outcome is going to be. You do it because you always wanted to be a hero — you wanted to be on the side of the light. It’s not until you destroy everything good in the world that you realize you’re not a hero… you’re just another villain for the empire.”
I enjoy reading speculative fiction that challenges personal and societal beliefs and motives, and I would have been fine with this in a longer story that contained more thematic elements, or perhaps if it had been delivered here with a more subtle hand, but in such a small space it felt somewhat overbearing and supercilious.
Skyboat Media is now producing Lightspeed Magazine’s stories in audio format (yay!), so you can listen to Stefan Rudnicki (a favorite of mine) read this story at Lightspeed’s website or by subscribing to their podcast. ~Kat Hooper