SHORTS: Our exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few Hugo-nominated stories we’ve read recently. (Due to Mother’s Day and other life events, SHORTS appears on a Wednesday this week.)
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander (2018, free at Uncanny Magazine, $3.03 Kindle magazine issue). 2019 Hugo award nominee (short story).
I was intrigued by the title of “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” and by the end of it, I was cheering and sniffling and wishing someone had told me bedtime stories like this when I was but a hatchling. Brooke Bolander’s Hugo-nominated story is full of wicked imagery, characters that will dig their talons into your heart, and a well-deserved metric tonne of comeuppance. Bolander captures the sensibility of a classic European fairy-tale while featuring some rather unlikely protagonists, and yet combines the elements of her story into an entertaining, slightly gory, whole.
The strength of the pride is in the many. Split us apart and we are nothing, but together — oh, together — there is nothing we cannot bring crashing and spouting to earth.
Three raptor sisters, SKRRKITTTT (Allie) and RRRKIISH (Betty) and SSSSSS (Ceecee), live in a forest, subsisting on stolen livestock and being the most beautiful, deadly creatures ever. One day, “clever girl” Ceecee spots a lethally-idiotic prince riding through their forest and decides to eat his horse, as one does; his reaction is puzzled befuddlement rather than abject terror, and the sisters decide that the best course of action is for Ceecee to go back to the prince’s lair and find out what the other humans have planned. It’s a plan which results in humiliations and terror for Ceecee, but in addition to the other pudding-headed castle residents, Ceecee meets the prince’s betrothed, a princess who seems to have the only working brain cells in the entire kingdom. The princess bonds with Ceecee, recognizing the similarities in their situations, and when the prince starts making some very bad decisions, the princess knows drastic action is required.
Bolander’s story is full to the brim with lovely imagery and turns of phrase, toying with the reader’s expectations for what a fairy tale is supposed to sound like, along with poking fun at the outright ineptitude of mammals and their “flat, dull teeth” in general. Her trio of raptor sisters are cunning, loyal, and absolutely wonderful; she does an excellent job of creating sympathetic creatures who are simultaneously fully-alien and fully-relatable. I was frequently reminded of Robert T. Bakker’s 1995 novel Raptor Red, which features a female Utahraptor as its beautiful, fierce protagonist, and which similarly captivated my heart from the first sentence. Highly recommended. ~Jana Nyman
The Thing About Ghost Stories by Naomi Kritzer (2018, free at Uncanny magazine, $3.03 Kindle magazine issue). 2019 Hugo award nominee (novelette).
Leah has been collecting ghost stories from people for years; mostly ordinary people, though with a few mediums in the mix (who Leah views with suspicion). These ghost stories were the basis of her doctoral dissertation for her PhD in folklore, and now she’s looking to write a book based on the stories she’s collected, analyzing their types, geographic variations, connections to popular culture, and so forth. Leah briefly retells some of the ghost stories she’s assembled as she narrates this tale, and they intermingle with Leah’s own story about the loss of her mother ― first to Alzheimer’s and then to death ― and the loss of an heirloom ring that Leah assumes was taken by one of her mother’s caregivers.
Mom had moved to Indiana with me, even though it was just for a year, because she said she thought I’d write my dissertation faster with someone there cooking for me. I figured she was just feeling lonely after Dad’s death. In retrospect, I wondered if she’d felt the first whispers of dementia, and figured that if she wrapped herself around my ankle early, it would be that much harder for me to shake her loose later on.
The Thing About Ghost Stories is a rather meandering tale at first, but it gradually gains focus as Leah’s own experiences begin to tie together with a few of the stories she’s being told by some of the people she meets. It’s far more poignant than spooky. Leah’s practical-minded narration strikes just the right balance between skepticism and belief. Naomi Kritzer has written a lovely, heartfelt story about ghosts, love and loss. ~Tadiana Jones
Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett (1943, originally published in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine; anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One 1929-1964). 1944 Retro Hugo nominee (novelette).
Readers who plunked down their 25 cents for the February 1943 issue of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction Magazine surely did get their money’s worth. This particular issue not only featured an installment of A. E. van Vogt’s soon-to-be-classic serial The Weapon Makers, and an installment of one of Will Stewart’s (a pen name of Jack Williamson) Seetee Ship novels, but also a short story by the great Henry Kuttner, entitled “Blue Ice.” And then there was the peculiarly-titled novelette tucked away on page 52, Mimsy Were the Borogoves, by Lewis Padgett, who had previously placed many other stories in Campbell’s magazine. But what readers did not know until many years later was that “Padgett” was also a pen name, used by Henry Kuttner and his wife/fellow writing partner C. L. Moore, who at this point in their careers had become so very prolific that they required a number of aliases so as to make multiple sales per issue. Indeed, in that same year of 1943, Kuttner & Moore managed to sell 20 stories, all told, not to mention their wonderful, full-length novel Earth’s Last Citadel. And despite ultimately releasing several hundred short stories and no fewer than 13 novels over some 20 years, Mimsy, for some obscure reason, remains the only one of their works (to my knowledge) to receive the cinematic treatment. Don’t ask me why.
And please don’t misunderstand me … it is a completely delightful story, well written (natch), and capped by a nice surprise toward the end, as well as an unexpectedly downbeat conclusion. In this tale, an alien (or perhaps Earthman?) named Unthahorsten, of the far, far distant future, builds a time machine and uses it to send two boxes loaded with his son’s disused educational toys into the past, so as to be able to examine them upon their return and exactly determine (by analyzing cosmic ray-induced alterations and so on) just how far back they had been sent. But Unthahorsten’s experiment is a failure, and the two boxes of toys become lost in the past.
One of these boxes is found by 7-year-old Scott Paradine in the Glendale, California of 1942. Scott pries the time box open somehow and finds some very unusual toys within: an abacus-like arrangement with beads that travel along impossible angles (and sometimes disappear); a crystalline cube with little figures inside, which Scott learns to manipulate with his mind; a doll showing the anatomical makeup of the body (a not-quite-human body, but still…); and more. Scott brings his haul home and shares them with his 2-year-old sister, Emma, while his parents, Dennis and Jane, become increasingly concerned by the changes in their children’s behavior. A child psychologist is consulted, who determines that the toys are somehow teaching the children to think differently than normal human beings, employing non-Euclidean patterns of thought …
Mimsy Were the Borogoves, despite its way-out conceit, also offers the reader some serious discussion on just how very alien children really are, as compared to adults; how their thought processes are unknowable, especially when they are infants. (It is telling that 2-year-old Emma proves to be a more readily malleable pupil than her older brother.) This is, for the most part, a sweet story, a fact that makes its denouement all the more startling. And as for that title, why, it is of course a line from Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky,” which initially appeared in his 1871 classic Through the Looking Glass, and which does play an integral part of this tale, and very cleverly so.
Though a tad on the dry side, and featuring a story line (kids being altered mentally by beings from the far future) perhaps better handled in John Wyndham’s 1968 novel Chocky, the tale yet manages to please. As for that film adaptation, 2007’s The Last Mimzy, I must confess that it is one that I still have not seen. But a quick scan of the movie’s plot synopsis will show that it has very little in common with Kuttner’s original, other than the central idea of toys from the future being sent into the past. (The producers couldn’t even retain the correct spelling of “Mimsy”?) It opened to mediocre box office and mixed reviews, and although I would surely like to experience it one day (it being, as I mentioned, Kuttner/Moore’s only filmization to date), I am also in no great rush to do so. Note to Hollywood: This great writing team has so many other adaptable works that could be made into blockbuster hits. Have you ever read Fury, for example? Or Valley of the Flame? Trust me on this one!
Today, I might add, 76 years after its first publication, Mimsy Were the Borogoves is up for some long-overdue recognition. It has been nominated for no less an award than the Retro Hugo, for Best Novelette of 1943. But it is up against some pretty stiff competition. Leigh Brackett has two nominations in that category, for Citadel of Lost Ships (which I’ve never read) and for The Halfling (which I enjoyed to a degree but do not think as deserving as Mimsy). And then there’s The Proud Robot, another wonderful Lewis Padgett story. (I told you these guys were prolific! As a matter of fact, the team is also up for two other Retro Hugos this year, for the novella Clash by Night and for the short story “Doorway Into Time”!) One of the delightful Professor Gallegher stories, The Proud Robot is, for me, a lot more entertaining than Mimsy. But there are two other contenders in this year’s Retro Hugo novelette race: Fritz Leiber’s Thieves’ House, which again, I have not read, and Eric Frank Russell’s Symbiotica, a fantastic story that would later appear in his Men, Martians and Machines collection in 1956. Of the four novelettes that I’ve experienced, I would say that Symbiotica is the most fun, and the most exciting. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mimsy took home the prize. It is surely the most thoughtful of the four, and probably the most often anthologized. But whichever piece cops the prize this coming August 18th, one thing is very clear: 1943 may have been a lousy year in world history, but it sure was a good one for magazine sci-fi! ~Sandy Ferber
Sandy, your review of “Mimsy” made me want to go dust off my old copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. I (actually I own all three volumes; they’re in my “keep forever” collection) and reread this story. I’m just afraid that I’d end up rereading the entire anthology once I got started.
Well, then, Tadiana, (a) my review was successful if it made just one person want to read this terrific story, and (b) you can always read “Mimsy” in “The Best of Henry Kuttner”; that would only be a 400-page commitment if you got pulled into it! :)