Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read that we wanted you to know about.
The Waiting Stars by Aliette de Bodard (2013, free to read online or download on author’s website). 2013 Nebula award winner and 2014 Hugo award nominee (novelette)
In this 2013 Nebula award-winning story, set in the 22nd century, Aliette de Bodard weaves together two narratives that at first seem unconnected but in the end, of course, are. The first concerns a woman’s exploration of a derelict spaceship in a graveyard of spaceships in an isolated corner of space controlled by the Outsiders. Lan Nhen’s Vietnamese-descended people build Mind-ships, spaceships powered by the brains and bodies of people who are made a permanent part of their ship, and are loved and revered as such. Lan Nhen is searching for her great-aunt and her ship, who disappeared many years ago. Meantime, on an Outsider planet far away, Catherine and other Dai Viet girls taken away by the Outsiders as children are raised in an institution, told stories of the terrible fate ― being “brood mares for abominations,” the deformed humans who provide the Minds of the Dai Viet spaceships ― that the Outsider people have rescued them from. It’s a peaceful but melancholy existence for Catherine and her friends, who have a sense of not belonging, elusive memories of a different, less bounded existence, and a yearning for space.
It took two readings to fully appreciate The Waiting Stars, but I was increasingly moved and impressed by it as I did so. It’s highly imaginative in its portrayal of two vastly different societies who have clashed with each other in war, both believing they are right. The Outsiders, a Caucasian society, are largely well-meaning but fundamentally lacking in understanding of the Dai Viet, resulting in a paternalistic disapproval that they enforce without consent.
This novelette explores themes of imperialism and cultural deprivation, but does so with a grace and subtlety that is too often lacking in speculative fiction. De Bodard’s nuanced writing helps the reader have understanding and even sympathy for characters on both sides. Even if a decision is right, she recognizes the loss that it may bring.
I stumbled across The Waiting Stars in the June 2017 issue of Clarkesworld magazine, which just reprinted it. Somehow I missed this story when it was first published a few years ago, even though it’s a Nebula winner, so I’m deeply grateful to Clarkesworld for bringing it to my belated attention. It was originally anthologized in The Other Half of the Sky. ~Tadiana Jones
“Playing in the Street” by Dean Wesley Smith (2012, $3.99 on Kindle, add narration for $1.99, or purchase audio separately for $3.95)
This opening scene in this science fiction tale by Dean Wesley Smith takes us to Moscow, Idaho in July 2030. The town, and a 100 mile-radius around it, has been uninhabited for years. Our narrator is gazing at the skeletal remains of his parents, who are still in their bed in his childhood home. As he looks at a photograph of himself playing football with the neighborhood kids when he was 12, he recalls what the idyllic town was like and how this tragic event occurred. The story jumps around in time, spanning a period of over 100 years, as we slowly piece together the mysterious events that destroyed Moscow, Idaho. The cause of the devastation will surprise you.
“Playing in the Street” is a tightly crafted little story that contains a murder mystery, outdoor adventure, science and technology, and romance. The audio version is an hour long and is pleasantly narrated by Jerimy Colbert. ~Kat Hooper
“Placa Del Fuego” is about a street urchin named Tiago, who lives in a future port city where the rain is so caustic that sirens wail and the residents don hazmat gear, unfold steel umbrellas, or get inside before it falls. Just before the rain starts one day, Tiago robs a woman who turns out to be a powerful and famous cyborg, something he would have thought was impossible on Placa del Fuego. His failed burglary attempt catches him up in a web of intrigue that changes his life forever.
The plot of “Placa Del Fuego” was exciting but felt more like an introduction to a much larger story, so I wasn’t satisfied when it ended. I’ve since learned that the story is related to Buckell’s XENOWEALTH series, which I’m now adding to my TBR pile because I really loved the setting (some of which I can’t tell you about without spoiling the plot) and the technological implications of Buckell’s world. I absolutely want to read more about this place and its inhabitants. It’s super cool.
Oh, and for a touch of humor, Buckell refers to “the Bacigalupi Doctrine” in this story. Cute.
The Audible version of “Placa Del Fuego” is 1 hour long and is narrated by Robin Miles. The story also appears in Buckell’s collection Mitigated Futures. ~Kat Hooper
Two generation spaceships arrive at their destination, the planet Tau Ceti-e, after a long journey from Earth. The story of what happens next is told through extracts from the remains of the logbook of the Starship Lindbergh, as the captain of the ship and others log entries discussing what they find on this planet, where they hope to settle and make a new life. Their orbital survey confirms that the planet is habitable by humans, although they unexpectedly find that there is an indigenous civilization there. That civilization is very low-tech, however, and Captain Yvonne Greer doesn’t anticipate that they’ll have much trouble with them, and in any case there’s no practical way of going back, or elsewhere. So they find a large uninhabited island where they hope to settle, and send down survey teams to explore on a short mission. When the teams return, things start to go wrong.
“Sanctuary” is an absorbing SF tale of planetary exploration and the unexpected events that can happen, despite the best-laid plans. I liked the plot, as far as it went, the writing and the setting. There are a couple of amusing medical and scientific glitches pointed out by readers in the comments on Tor.com, but my main issue with the story is that it ended too soon, with too much left hanging. I very much wanted to know what happened next, so much so that I embarked on my own exploratory journey, looking for more stories or perhaps a novel in this universe that “Sanctuary” would be just the introduction for. So far nothing but, like the humans who land on Tau Ceti-e, I haven’t entirely lost hope yet. ~Tadiana Jones
Sarah Pinsker’s novelette “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” was one of this year’s Nebula nominees. It’s about two women who meet under strange circumstances. Bay lives a meager life by herself on a remote island, but this is a loneliness she didn’t choose. As she walks on the beach one morning, she finds a woman who she calls “the rock star” who has washed up on shore, nearly dead. It’s clear right away that this is not an uncommon occurrence. As the two women haltingly reveal themselves to each other, we learn about the post-apocalyptic world (our future world) they live in.
I was interested in Pinsker’s future society, which involves wealthy people abandoning cities and migrating to huge cruise ships. I wanted to know more about this and would happily read other stories set in this world. The writing is lovely, the structure is unusual, and I also enjoyed the way Pinsker (a musician) used music to develop some of her themes. Unfortunately I couldn’t bring myself to care much for Bay (who’s standoffish) and the rock star (who is also not very forthcoming). Given more time, I feel certain that they would have grown on me and I would have liked them quite well and appreciated the touching ending to this novelette. ~Kat Hooper
This tale consists of, as the title indicates, 43 responses to what was apparently a Twitter post by Dr. Kevin Bates, who has written an online tribute after the death of his colleague, Dr. Alexandra Nako. Drs. Bates and Nako were conducting research of near-death experiences (NDEs). In between the sympathetic posts of puppyhugs42, the rather aggressive and insulting posts of Chekhov’s Jellyfish, and the patronizing spelling and grammar corrections of SchlumpySpacePrincess, there appear some responses posted by someone who claims to be the spirit of Dr. Nako, insisting that NDE research is dangerous and that Dr. Bates need to terminate it immediately. But every time the Dr. Nako commentator tries to explain exactly why it’s dangerous, her comment degenerates into a jumble of letters and symbols.
This is a slight but very amusing short story, with a thread of horror, that captures the essence of comments and disagreements in an online discussion thread. I appreciated the interplay between the different commentators, the apparent desperation of the Nako commenter, and the indignation of Bates. And (as a former English major who often has to resist the annoying urge to correct others’ spelling mistakes) I definitely snickered at the obstinate SchlumpySpacePrincess. ~Tadiana Jones