Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. This week’s column features more of the 2018 Nebula award-nominated novelettes and short stories.
P. Djeli Clark takes the historical idea of George Washington’s teeth (not wooden, as lore has it) and creates around them a series of vignettes detailing, as the title tells us, the “nine Negro teeth” that made up his set. Each brief vignette tells us a bit about the slave from whom the tooth came, how they came to be in Washington’s servitude, and the effect of their tooth on Washington. For instance, the first tooth belonged to a blacksmith who, forced to make tools of bondage, imbued them with magic to “bind the spirits of their wielders … For the blacksmith understood what masters had chosen to forget: when you make a man or woman a slave you enslave yourself in turn.” And so it is that when Washington wore this tooth, he “complained of hearing the heavy fall of a hammer on an anvil day and night.”
This was by far my favorite of the Nebula nominees. I loved the vignette structure, the lyrical language and rhythm, the story’s killer ending, and especially Clark’s ability to create a moving sense of a person in such a short period of time, and the way in which, in that same impressively economical fashion, he creates a whole world of 18th Century America filled with magic, with mermen and sea monsters, “English mages hurling volleys of emerald fireballs,” and Spanish mulata werewolves. Great imagery, diction, varying and nuanced tone, unusual structure, hard-hitting theme, thought-provoking, highly original: I thought this stood head and shoulders above the others. ~Bill Capossere
P. Djeli Clark’s quasi-historical tale of nine slave teeth purchased by George Washington begins with an excerpt from a Mt. Vernon ledger (“By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire”) which, I was astonished to find after a little online research, is entirely historical, though it’s not clear whether the nine teeth ended up in the dentures of Washington or someone else in his household. (In any case, none of Washington’s false teeth were the wooden teeth of legend; mostly they were ivory or animal teeth but some were, in fact, human.)
From here Clark spins a magical, imaginative tale of the distinct origins of these nine teeth: the people they originally belonged to, their histories, and the effect of each of the teeth on George Washington. I gave an appreciative shudder at the end of the tale of the fifth tooth, and cheered the grim justice in the tale of the seventh tooth. Clark deftly mixes together the actual facts and circumstances of the slavery trade with mystic mermen, conjure men, magic-wielding cooks and other fantastical elements. Though this is a series of vignettes (reminiscent of Ken Liu’s 2012 Nebula-nominated short story “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”), the overarching themes, particularly of slavery and its evils, but also of the indomitable human spirit, unify these nine brief tales into a coherent, compelling whole. ~Tadiana Jones
Messenger by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne & R.R. Virdi (2018, contained in The Expanding Universe 4: Space Adventure, Alien Contact, & Military Science Fiction, 99c Kindle anthology). 2018 Nebula award nominee (novelette).
Messenger takes the giant mecha vs. alien monsters subgenre of SF (think Pacific Rim) and gives it a Hindu god twist. Aliens land on Earth’s moon and, not long after, on Earth itself, first crashing into Bangalore, India and into the home of Arjun Shetty, recently retired from the Indian Army reserves. The alien crash instantly kills Shetty’s pregnant wife and child. Shetty, distraught, volunteers to become a Shikari (“hunter”), a hundred-meter tall cyborg warrior called Vishnu’s Vengeance made to fight the huge aliens that are now landing in greater numbers. But life as a giant godlike cyborg has its drawbacks, and Shetty ― and other Shikari ― begin to have difficulty functioning, some even hallucinating that they are the gods they are named after.
Wijeratne and Virdi vividly create the viewpoint of Shetty, struggling to maintain his sanity and fulfill Vishnu’s role as a protector of men … but it’s hard to keep that focus when Shetty is constantly called “Father” or “Vishnu” by his crew and sees humans as ants surrounding him. The woman who has become the Kali Shikari has an even more difficult time with her worshipful crew.
The Kali technicians have always been more than just technicians. They worship her. My children call me father, but Bay Six … We’ve all heard the stories. It’s no small thing to see your gods come alive. And servicing the Mother Goddess has always been more than just an oil change.
Messenger focuses on Shetty/Vishnu’s mental struggles with identity, made more difficult by the fact that his memories were wiped when he became the Vishnu Shikari … but not entirely. Less attention is given to his relationships with the humans he works with and his battles with the alien creatures, but it fits his sense of alienation. The narration is rather fragmented and sometimes near-incoherent, though in this particular case I’m inclined to view that as a feature rather than a bug. It’s a dark novelette, worth checking out, especially while the collection it appears in is priced at 99c. ~Tadiana Jones
There have only even been two kinds of librarians . . . the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around the lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches.
It comes as no surprise that our narrator is the latter type. And in this story she struggles with the rules of witch-librarians as she regularly observes a teenage foster-child who clearly leads an unhappy life and is in need of some sort of escape. The literary kind. of course, since he’s there to check out books, but perhaps as well the more literal sort. And thus the narrator’s dilemma: does she follow the rules, or does she give the boy the book she knows he so desperately needs?
This is a sharply crafted story, perhaps a tad overlong but mostly well-paced and filled with a number of lovely images and figurative language. The narrator has a wry sense of humor (as when she wants to have the school board’s complaint that the library is a “haven for unsupervised and illicit teenage activity” put on a plaque outside the door) that does a nice job of leavening the heavier aspects of the story, but doesn’t negate the sense of grief and frustration or the bittersweet nature of the situation as it unfolds. Thanks to the first-person POV, it can at times be a bit too on the nose for me, but I’ve found my bar for that is set lower than many, so my guess is this won’t be an issue for most. Especially as a story about magical librarians, sentient books, and literal “escapism” (painted in a far better light than it’s usually ascribed) is pretty much the trifecta for fantasy readers. ~Bill Capossere
(Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones also reviewed “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” in our March 4, 2019 SHORTS column and rated it 5 stars, thus proving Bill’s final point.)
The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births follows Jamie, a non-binary teenager who remembers their past lives; or, more accurately, remembers that they’ve had past lives. That is to say, some memories remain, but specific details of those memories are imprecise.
I think it is important to acknowledge, up front, that when I started reading this story, I had high hopes: firstly, because The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births is a Nebula award finalist in the novelette category (I’ve read many Nebula Award finalists over the years and enjoyed a lot of them); and secondly, because I’m always excited to encounter stories with non-binary main characters since I’m the non-binary main character of my own life.
However, my expectations and my excitement might mean that I set myself up for some disappointment: I ended up finding this story to be a resounding ‘meh.’
While the basic premise of a non-binary character being at ease in their gender because they remember being other genders in their past lives intrigued me, it wasn’t enough to keep me interested throughout what is, overall, a mundane story. The speculative aspect of the story is critical to the novelette, but it is also somewhat confusing: is this kind of memory recall common in the world being created? Is it unique? Is the reader to assume other people have Jamie’s ability, or other non-binary people, or no other people at all? These and many more of my worldbuilding questions went unanswered. The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births demands a great deal of suspension of disbelief and it didn’t give me a lot of reason to do so.
Basically, Jamie discovers some things about one of their past lives, leading them to discover some things about their current life ― they are, in essence, an awkward teen doing their best. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say much about the plot, but there isn’t much to spoil since not much happens. It’s a nice, straightforward, even quaint tale. To the author’s credit, the characters seem grounded: each choice Jamie makes is very believable, as are the choices of the secondary characters, and this ends up being the strongest aspect of the story. That said, I also think therein lies the problem: they’re all just doing things. Their growth, and the story’s growth, feels muted. I do love good, believable characters, and this story makes for a nice read, but not a particularly deep or thought-provoking one. ~Skye Walker