Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about, including some nominees for the 2016 Nebula award.
“No nation has ever seen an invasion force like this.”Tobias Buckell’s short story “A Militant Peace” was published in Mitigated Futures, a collection of tales dealing with “the future of war, our climate, and technology’s effects on our lives.” Buckell’s story, as you can probably tell by the title, is about the future of war and I thought it was fascinating. In this future, big corporations sponsor war efforts around the world, partly as a promotional strategy, partly to incur tax write-offs, and partly (I assume) of their own good will. Sounds crazy, but it just might work.
In “A Militant Peace,” we follow Mai, a Vietnamese soldier who is part of a United Nations effort to overthrow North Korea’s tyrannical leader. With their technologically superior armor, they have “invaded” North Korea, quickly set up a luxurious camp for defecting soldiers and citizens (with delicious food, fashionable clothes, television, and high-speed internet provided by ConAgra, Nike and Samsung), and invited citizens and soldiers to join them. Their goal is to not injure a single North Korean while expanding the camp and spreading education, comfort and democracy until they basically take over the country and replace the current regime. All of their efforts are streamed live for the world to see.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I loved this strategy, especially Buckell’s explanation for how it came about.
“A Militant Peace” is 51 minutes long in the audio version I listened to. It’s nicely narrated by Jeena Yi. I’m glad I picked it up at Audible. ~Kat Hooper
On the steps of a Brooklyn brownstone in the early 1920s, nine year old Malka, a Jewish girl, and twelve year old David, a black southern Baptist boy, get acquainted. She’s surprised that he wants to spend time talking with a younger girl but, as he informs her, he’s actually dead, so that makes a difference. They chat about their families, and Malka ends up inviting David to come to her home that Saturday for a Jewish Sabbath dinner.
Malka’s father Abe, who is not at all religiously observant (he had once almost been sent to Siberia “for writing articles linking religion to the consistent poverty of the masses”), is reluctant, but he loves his daughter, and Malka wheedles him into agreeing. The only problem is obtaining the kosher wine for the dinner, with Prohibition in effect. Abe tries his Jewish contacts first, without success, and ends up meeting David’s father, a small-time bootlegger, where they arrange the sale of the wine and their fateful dinner.
Unlike Katie, whose review follows, I was moved and impressed by “Sabbath Wine.” The Prohibition-era Brooklyn setting is evocatively described, as is Abe’s past history as a radical. The magical realism element, a dead child’s spirit staying with its parent, seen and heard by only a very few people, dovetails with the religious and racial prejudices and conflicts that both families have experienced, and there’s a nicely handled twist that surprised me (though in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have). It’s a quietly poignant tale, with a small note of grace in the meeting of these two fathers. ~Tadiana Jones
“Sabbath Wine” is one of this year’s Nebula nominees for best short story. It’s the story of a nine year old girl, Malka, and her new friend David, a nearly thirteen year old boy, who immediately tells Malka he is dead. Malka gets chatting to David outside his gospel church in Brooklyn. Unperturbed by his strange admission and keen to share her own religious heritage with her friend, she persuades her father to put on a Sabbath dinner, despite his vehement anti-religious sentiments. In the hunt for wine (the city is under Prohibition) Malka’s father meets David’s father, a bootlegger, and the foursome end up having dinner together. The fathers fall to discussing the past and the persecution they have both faced due to their races and religions.
I enjoyed “Sabbath Wine” and found it an engaging story of two families drawn together in an unlikely alliance. The historical and political context is expertly weaved into the story and the characters are well-drawn. As a fantasy story I was less convinced. The fantasy element felt rather unnecessary, almost slipped in as an afterthought. There wasn’t a clear purpose to the story or any real resolution, and for that reason I was left feeling unsatisfied (and not particularly generous with the stars). ~Katie Burton
“Things With Beards” is a sequel of sorts to John W. Campbell, Jr.’s classic novella Who Goes There?, which I reread in preparation for reading this short story, though this story is actually based much more on John Carpenter’s film version of this story, 1982’s The Thing, starring Kurt Russell, which takes a fair number of liberties with the novella’s plot. *Spoilers follow for both the novella and the film* Both are about a frozen alien found by a group of scientists in Antarctica, which returns to life when it is thawed out and promptly begins to kill and assimilate the humans and animals living in the camp, turning itself into an exact replica of whatever it has killed, down to the molecular level. That, combined with the alien’s ability to read minds and thus mimic the assimilated man’s personality convincingly, makes it nearly impossible to discern who is human and who is alien.
At the end of The Thing, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) has blown up the Antarctica camp and everything in it. He and a black man named Childs are the sole survivors, but they have no hope of rescue. It’s not even clear whether one or both of them are actually aliens. We get the answer to that question in “Things With Beards.”
In this short story, set in 1983, MacReady and Childs have been rescued and returned to the U.S. Although their bodies were frozen solid, they returned to life when thawed (cue ominous music). As the story begins, MacReady is meeting his old friend Hugh, another black man, in a McDonalds. They are former lovers, and quickly pick up their relationship again. MacReady has these odd blackouts when he’s alone with just one other person. It happens with Hugh, and MacReady (who has no recollection of the events in Antarctica) begins to fear what is inside him. At the same time, he’s also hiding his homosexuality and his sympathetic involvement with Hugh’s black radical movement, which has a plan to bomb multiple police stations in the city.
Beards were camouflage. A costume. Only Blair and Garry lacked one, both being too old to need to appear as anything other than what they were, and Childs, who never wanted to.
He shivered. Remembering. The tough-guy act, the cowboy he became in uncertain situations. Same way in juvie; in lock-up. Same way in Vietnam. Hard, mean, masculine. Hard drinking; woman hating. Queer? Psssh. He hid so many things, buried them deep, because if men knew what he really was, he’d be in danger. When they learned he wasn’t one of them, they would want to destroy him.
In Sam J. Miller’s version of this world, people who have been assimilated by the Thing are not consciously aware of it; when the Thing emerges, they have a blackout. (Apparently this is a hotly debated plot point in Thing fandom, per Miller’s blog.) I was intrigued by that aspect of the plot, which had never occurred to me when reading the original story, and it lent itself well to Miller’s story.
“Things With Beards” is a story brimming with ideas: the difficulties of a secretly gay life, racial conflict, AIDS, alienation, fear, prejudice, hiding our real selves behind a beard or mask. It’s message fiction, but more interesting and layered than most. It suffers, perhaps, from an overabundance of plot elements and ideas, and from being rather disjointed. The black activist plot element never really meshed with the rest of the story for me, and the fact that an already assimilated man would be dying of AIDS didn’t make sense, given my understanding of how the alien works. At the conclusion of the story, Miller offers up the theme to readers on a platter, but I wasn’t quite convinced enough to buy it. ~Tadiana Jones
I despised “The Nothing,” a short story by Frank Herbert which was originally published in Fantastic Universe in January 1956. It’s about an 18-year-old woman who lives in a society in which most people have some sort of paranormal talent such as prescience, levitating objects, or pyromania. We watch this young woman sneak out of the house, go to a bar and, pretending to be a “woman of the world” like a movie star she admires, display her legs and flirt with a brooding handsome man. Then he tells her he’s a “nothing,” meaning that he has no talent at all — basically an outcast. From there, she gets involved in a plot to save her society’s talents from being lost.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I also don’t want to make you read it, so if you want to know what happens and why I hated this story, highlight the following spoiler: The handsome nothing’s father, who is high up in the society because of his own talents, tells her that she must marry his son because their child will be very talented. She is thrilled to marry this guy she just met because he’s handsome. So they get married and she acts like a giddy idiot.
See why I hated this story? Frank Herbert, a 36-year-old man at the time, probably shouldn’t have tried to write from the perspective of a woman half his age, even in 1956. I was disgusted by her lack of autonomy, shallowness, and silliness. Besides that, the whole thing felt so old-fashioned, even when it was trying to give an air of being cool and worldly. I just can’t see this working for anyone, male or female, today.
I listened to the audio version I picked up at Audible. Sara Morsey captures this woman perfectly. She’s brilliant, which unfortunately added to my distaste for the protagonist. You can try the sample to see what I mean. ~Kat Hooper