Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here we review a couple of Nebula-nominated stories (one older; one newer), with a wide array of opinions from our group of reviewers on the newer story (actually, three identical ratings and one outlier). Read on!
With Unclean Hands by Adam-Troy Castro (2011, originally published in Analog magazine, $2.99 Kindle version). 2011 Nebula award nominee (novella).
Andrea Cort is a cold, damaged human being. One would think this would make her wholly unsuitable for a career in the diplomatic corps that represents humans in a universe filled with sentient species. But the incident that damaged her as a child is also one that requires she be kept under close watch by the Dip Corps, and so her career as a counselor for that service is essentially preordained. Castro has written three novels and six short pieces about Cort, with a seventh short piece only recently completed and not yet published.
With Unclean Hands is the first tale about Cort chronologically, though not the first written.It is still early in her career, and Cort has been given an easy task: she must pass judgment on a deal to trade a human criminal to the Zinn in exchange for some of the valuable technology this much more advanced race has developed. The Zinn are millennia ahead of humans, but are inexplicably dying; the whole species has retreated from what was once an enormous interstellar empire. No one knows why they want a human criminal, but they are prepared to keep him in a good deal more comfort than humans would afford him, even if he is kept isolated from both Zinns and humans. Cort is under pressure to approve the trade when she meets a Zinn child named First Given. And that chance brief meeting leads Cort down a treacherous path to understanding.
Castro sets his puzzle up and then unravels it with care. The story packs a potent emotional punch. Cort is a character unlike just about any I’ve encountered over a lifetime as a Constant Reader. It’s no surprise that it was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2011. I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest of her adventures. ~Terry Weyna
“And Yet” is a compelling horror story from A.T. Greenblatt, in which an unnamed narrator returns to the site of tremendous childhood trauma — a thoroughly upsetting haunted house — intent upon peeling back the house’s secrets in the name of quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, multiverse theory, and a bit of good old-fashioned revenge. But the house isn’t the only source of trauma in the narrator’s past and, moreover, the house might have its own ideas about how this encounter should go. As the narrator moves through the house’s constantly-shifting rooms and hallways, encountering possibilities and fractured realities, the reader discovers just how much has gone sideways during the narrator’s twenty-eight years of life, and just how tight a stranglehold fear has had on them.
The secrets of the universe are a locked door and you might have the key. That is, if the house doesn’t kill you first.
I’m a sucker for “big sibling looks out for younger sibling” stories, and that’s an important component of “And Yet,” along with so many other things that I enjoyed which were truly well-done here. The unnamed narrator’s continued resentment of childhood bullies even into adulthood, the lingering scars and wounds caused by careless or downright hostile parents, the confrontation between childhood and adulthood, and the drive to beat the haunted house at its own game, all pack powerful punches in a remarkably short, brutally efficient story. Greenblatt examines fear in its many forms, shame (unearned and otherwise), the power of choice, and the price of happiness.
While leaving the narrator unnamed and ungendered, leaving the reader free to fill in those blanks as they choose, an important detail is the narrator’s use of leg braces and a walking cane. These items and the narrator’s use of them are crucial to the story being told, and absolutely cannot be forgotten or brushed aside. Greenblatt’s ear for her narrator’s voice is pitch-perfect, echoing their recursive thought process while parceling out details in a way that keeps the reader in the dark until the just right moment. For further insight into Greenblatt’s writing process, I recommend the companion interview with Caroline M. Yoachim, published in the same issue of Uncanny magazine. ~Jana Nyman
Armed with a doctorate in theoretical physics, you return to the house that haunted your youth since you were a bullied eight-year-old child, determined to wrest the truth and some measure of peace from this menacing house. It’s a place where pocket universes collide: its rooms contain scenes from your past ― a mother who insists on you finishing every bit of an inedible dinner that constantly refreshes itself, a younger brother who is hit by a car crossing the road ― or from alternative worlds where your life diverges from its present path.
“And Yet” is a haunted house story that’s more SF than fantasy, dips into theoretical physics and parallel universes, and went a completely different direction in the end than I expected, but which made perfect sense in the context of the story. The narrator is an intriguing character, with significant difficulties in their past, including difficult parents, a loss of a beloved sibling at a young age, and so-called friends whose cruelty becomes apparent. I had to grin when the narrator tells this horrified group of childhood friends that they “come from a universe that’s banned the internet and the only shows on TV are documentaries.” The narrator used two crutches as a child but now gets by with one walking cane; it’s an apt metaphor for their life. They’ve overcome many obstacles but are still troubled by past events.
I’m on the fence with the second person narration, which the author mentioned (in her interview in this issue of Uncanny magazine) gave her inspiration, but which is by far the hardest narrative voice to pull off well. But I did find the present-tense narration highly appropriate for this particular story. Bill mentions in his review below that he found the ending predictable, but personally I found it a gratifying surprise. ~Tadiana Jones
Told in second-person, the main character in “And Yet” is a theoretical physicist returning to the site of childhood trauma — a “haunted house” that they theorize is a nexus for parallel universes. Beside their own personal trauma the day they were abandoned their by a group of “friends,” the house and that day are connected as well to the eventual death of their younger brother. Now, inside the house once again, the protagonist has to face a series of encounters seemingly meant to scare them off, and culminating in a life-changing decision.
While the story is told ably enough — it moves along smoothly and at a decent pace — I can’t say it did much for me. Part of the problem was much of it just didn’t feel particularly fresh, either in terms of character or setting: the mother who force-feeds the kid into eating food or never leaving the table, the father who prefers sports to academics, the mean kids who “befriend” a different kind of kid but then turn out not to be true friends, the haunted house with many doors and constricting, lengthening passageways and creepy wallpaper. The final situation I thought was relatively predictable, and having the main character note they should have seen it coming themselves but “didn’t allow” themselves to didn’t make it any less so. And the final decision felt like it was intended to be portrayed as more difficult than it really seemed. Not a bad story, but as noted, it doesn’t stand out either. ~Bill Capossere
Editor’s note: Skye Walker also reviewed “And Yet” in our March 4, 2019 SHORTS column and rated it 4.5 stars. Sadly for Bill, he’s outvoted on this one.