Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read recently that we wanted you to know about.
“Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory (2005, free in print and audio at Clarkesworld, November 2017 issue; originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, September 2005 issue)
I love what Daryl Gregory does with drugs. “Second Person, Present Tense” is about the parents of a girl who died after overdosing on a drug called “Zen” or “Zombie.” Unable to cope with their loss, they latch on to a homeless girl (our narrator) who they hope will come live with them and replace their daughter. (It’s more complicated than this, but I don’t want to spoil it.) These three characters, with the help of a doctor and counselor, try to make things work.
“Second Person, Present Tense” was originally published in 2005 in Asimov’s, so it pre-dates Gregory’s Afterparty (2014) which contains some of the same elements and themes. Both stories are about consciousness and self-identity and how they might be shifted when brain chemistry is altered. Have you ever wondered where “YOU” go when you sleep? When you’re under anesthesia? When you wake up in the morning and have that momentary feeling that you don’t know who or where you are? When you die? These are questions about consciousness that neuroscience hasn’t been able to answer and they can be frightening to think about. Here Daryl Gregory turns them into a twisty heart-wrenching story.
Thanks to Kate Baker for reading this story, which I found on Clarkesworld’s podcast (also available on their website). She does a great job with the adult and teenage characters. ~Kat Hooper
“Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Aug. 2017, free at Apex Magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)
Jesse Turnblatt has Indian heritage, but not enough. He works for a company that offers tourists the chance to immerse themselves in a virtual reality Indian world, though the experience is about as authentic as the movie characters Jesse bases himself on. In an attempt to make things more realistic Jesse renames himself “Trueblood”, much to his wife’s disgust. He’s not proud of it, but he needs to pay the bills.
“Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is a chilling take on tourism and the degradation of native cultures. When Jesse befriends one of his customers both in the virtual world and in the flesh, things start to go wrong for him. He is caught in a bewildering spiral in which reality and virtual reality become increasingly confused. Told in the second person to great effect, the reader feels desperately sorry for Jesse while also wondering if he is being punished for his complicity in the undermining of Indian culture. The pace never slows as the plot gets bleaker, and the twist at the end throws up big questions that belie this story’s size. A deeply effective and troubling read. ~Katie Burton
“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon (May 2017, free at Uncanny Magazine, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)
Most stories about the bequeathal of magic swords have a predictable course: young timid person gets sword, discovers hidden depths of ferocity and warrior-ness, becomes young brave person who vanquishes an evil king or whatever monster plagues their village, and spends the rest of their life doing Hero Things. But Ursula Vernon does not do predictable, and “Sun, Moon, Dust” is a different kind of story.
On her deathbed, Allpa’s fierce grandmother gives him a magical sword with the spirits of three beings bound to it, promising that the spirits of Sun, Moon, and Dust will teach him to fight. Allpa is happy being a farmer, though, and summoning the spirits by drawing the blade from its scabbard leads to some confused conversations and not a few bruises. As he gets to know the spirits, and they him, those conversations lead to an understanding, and some unexpected happiness.
“Sun, Moon, Dust” is a charming tale about taking pride in things one enjoys doing, even if those activities don’t seem likely to bring fame and glory upon one’s head. (And, as in most of Vernon’s stories, readers will spot useful tidbits about gardening and animal husbandry in among the goings-on.) ~Jana Nyman
“The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” by Nick Mamatas and Tim Pratt (2008, free at Apex Magazine, Nov. 2017 issue, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue; originally published in ChiZine, April 2008 issue)
Jim Payne is the black great-grandson of Cavanaugh Payne, a white man who had engaged in written correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft back in the 1920s. Jim travels from the Red Hook area of Brooklyn to the Vermont countryside to visit the home of Fremgen, a collector of SF memorabilia who has a particular enthusiasm for Lovecraft. Jim has inherited some letters written to his great-grandfather by Lovecraft, and hopes to sell them to Fremgen for enough money to clear his debts. Jim soon discovers, however, that Fremgen has more in mind for their meeting than just buying a few letters, and it could open the door to horrors … of the eldritch variety, of course!
“The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” has a highly readable plot that builds in intensity. The story has rich irony, including the main character’s skin color, juxtaposed with Lovecraft’s well-known racism, and the fact that he hails from Red Hook, the setting for “The Horror at Red Hook,” one of Lovecraft’s more racist and bigoted stories. Nick Mamatas and Tim Pratt also work in a key plot point from one of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, “The Thing on the Doorstep.” All in all it’s a great reworking and updating of Lovecraftian horror. ~Tadiana Jones
“The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke (1954, free online or purchase at Audible)
A Jesuit priest, the astrophysicist on a space crew voyaging to explore the Phoenix Nebula, is having a crisis of faith. He has always been able to blend religious faith and scientific knowledge in his life, but what he finds out at the destination of their voyage shakes him to the core.
It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican. Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith, just as I believed the heavens declared the glory of God’s handwork. Now I have seen that handiwork, and my faith is sorely troubled.
“The Star” is a somber, poignant, and beautifully-told story. It deals with questions of belief, as well as the magnificent and wonderful things in our universe. I feel like Arthur C. Clarke loaded the dice a little to make his story more dramatic, but that’s a minor quibble.
This story raises the fundamental question of, how can a loving God allow (or perhaps even cause) terrible things to happen? I don’t believe Clarke tries to answer that question, and probably the story is stronger because he didn’t try. On one level it might be viewed as anti-religious (which was my view of this story for many years), but after reading it again I don’t think it’s that simple or straightforward. I don’t know whether or not Clarke actually intended readers to perhaps see the larger issue of mortality and God’s purposes more broadly than the priest does, but those ideas lingered in my mind long after the story was done.
Clarke has a quite different take on religion in another equally well-known and much anthologized short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” It makes for an interesting contrast with this one. ~Tadiana Jones
Editor’s note: Kat Hooper also reviewed “The Star” in our Dec. 23, 2016 SHORTS column and rated it 5 stars.
“The Summer Mask” by Karin Lowachee (Nov. 2017, free at Nightmare Magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)
David, an artist, is creating a mask for Matthew, a young veteran who used to be beautiful but was blinded and severely disfigured during a war. As David works on the mask, he falls in love with Matthew and, because of his deep feelings, is able to create a masterpiece beyond imagining.
This melancholy story (published in Nightmare Magazine) is about loneliness, ennui, beauty, and self-sacrifice. Some of it is gory, some is glorious, but all of it is unsettling.
I listened to the audio version performed by Stefan Rudnicki, one of my favorite narrators. ~Kat Hooper
I almost reviewed “Second Person, Present Tense.”
I love that you start your review of it with the sentence, “I love what Daryl Gregory does with drugs!”
Did you like it as much as I did, Marion?
My opinion of it changed (upwards) when I saw it was a reprint, because originally it read like a small step back from his recent works, which as you know I’ve loved. However, this predates Afterparty. About wanting something a little more at the end… one of his strengths, to me, is the power of family. So I was willing to settle for that.
Kat; a little more detail. He delves into questions of memory and identity in such a realistic way, and I totally believed that this girl, Pre-Zen at least, would be drawn to this drug just for momentary relief from the sense of always being watched, judged, edited… even by herself.
I just read the story and really enjoyed it, though I would have liked just a little more … something … in the end. But I found this discussion thread from 2005 (the story’s original publication date) where Daryl Gregory himself unexpectedly popped up and explained some of the ideas and references in this story. It was fascinating, and now I need to go read the whole story again. http://shortform.livejournal.com/34113.html (very spoilerish so read the story first).