Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Bill and Tadiana both weigh in on a few more of this year’s Nebula nominees (and one other excellent short story that Tadiana thinks should have been nominated), and Tadiana comments on the 20Booksto50K Nebula controversy.

“STET” by Sarah Gailey (2018, free at Fireside magazine)

“STET” is in the form of a draft of a scholarly article by a woman named Anna, in which she and her editor exchange increasingly agitated (at least on Anna’s side) written comments about the article’s references and footnotes. “STET” begins with a section on “Autonomous Conscience and Automotive Casualty.” It sounds dry, and reading the paragraph of body text from this article doesn’t do anything at all to change that first impression. But Anna’s true feelings and emotions come out in her footnotes to the article, and between those and Anna’s exchanges with her editor about the footnotes, each ending with Anna’s emphatic “STET,” what at first glance seems mundane becomes astounding.

“STET” is quite brief but has an innovative, brilliant structure that took me a couple of reads to fully appreciate. It takes the well-known “Trolley problem” as a jumping-off point, and ties it into potential issues with automated vehicles and AI. It quickly becomes apparent that Anna has experienced the death of her beloved daughter Ursula. But how ― and precisely why ― that occurred, together with Anna’s justifiable bitterness and her insistence on her voice and point of view being heard, are what make this story fascinating. Highly recommended! ~Tadiana Jones

“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (2018, free at Lightspeed magazine, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2018 Nebula award nominee (short story).

An unnamed speaker narrates the tale of how a young street boy is chosen to be trained as the next Court Magician and then eventually given the word of power that will allow him to “make problems disappear” for the Regent. Each time he speaks the word, however, the court magician loses something important to him — a body part, a person he cared for, a favorite pillow — leaving him to wonder if he’s chosen the right path as well as wonder about where the path will eventually lead.

The story has a fabulistic feel to it thanks to the unnamed narrator, the distant tone, the use of titles and pronouns for characters rather than names, the swift passing of time and quick glossing over of emotional moments, and finally the sense of a moral lying underneath it all. I can’t say I “felt” for the reader, or anyone else, due to the aloof nature of the fable, but as a fable I think the story works quite well. Sarah Pinsker also offers up a fine example of one of fantasy’s best aspects: the way metaphor can be made literal. In this case, it’s pretty clear that what is being explored is the cost of complicity, the idea of “losing a part of oneself” or “selling out oneself.”

At its core, it’s a pretty simple metaphor, but Pinsker complicates it nicely. One way is that while the first example seems like the clichéd “banal evil” of a whimsically cruel person of power and the court magician’s decision is linked to how “he likes the silk pillow,” later the case is made that the court magician is perhaps saving lives by forestalling war, though the reader is left uncertain as to whether this is truly the case or mere self-rationalization. Another way the metaphor is complicated is in how the cost is borne not just by the magician but by those whom he cares for, so it becomes potentially a “one life for other lives” equation, if the reader chooses to see it that way. Personally, I know where I fall in judgment, but I’ll leave that to individual readers. I do think the author tips her hand in the magician’s final choice, however, and in the way the narrator distinguishes themselves from the court magician. ~Bill Capossere

Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician,” has an apt structure, divided into sections titled “The Boy Who Will Become Court Magician,” then “The Young Man Who Will Become Court Magician,” and so on. It gives this allegorical fable a fatalistic feel as we follow the main character as a boy, then a young man, and then a man, through the years. He has an endless curiosity, a hunger for learning magic … and a deep disappointment when he realizes that ultimately it’s all sleight-of-hand and tricks. So it’s almost irresistible for him when the narrator’s emissary offers him a chance to learn more magic at the palace. Eventually this leads ― or, more accurately, he is carefully, gradually and deliberately led ― to the word that is true magic, but at a personal cost that cumulates in a literal, appalling way.

A reveal at the end concerning the narrator is nicely done, as is the development of the magician’s motivations that prompt his behavior and decisions. The metaphor underlying “The Court Magician” is a bit too pointed for my taste (and if there’s any question at all about the meaning, Pinsker makes it expressly clear in her Author Spotlight in this issue of Lightspeed). But its meaning can ― and, I hope, does ― transcend this particular moment in American history. ~Tadiana Jones

“Going Dark” by Richard Fox (2018, published in Backblast Area Clear anthology, Vol. 1, 99c Kindle version of anthology). 2018 Nebula award nominee (short story).

As Terran Union forces fight alien Naroosha flying saucers in the battered remains of Utica City, Sergeant Hoffman orders his troops ― massive men called “doughboys” who have limited mental capacity ― to set up positions in an abandoned school to protect the retreat of a group of Rangers and to attempt to take out a Naroosha Max, a car-sized flying weaponized machine. Some of Hoffman’s doughboys, who are actually “combat constructs” (beefy-type cyborgs), begin to experience problems functioning during the heat of the battle, soon creating a wrenching situation for Hoffman.

“Going Dark” begins, somewhat opaquely, in the midst of battle (with added distraction for me in the form of several punctuation errors). Richard Fox employs some threadbare military SF tropes (ray guns and hostile aliens in flying saucers, really?) and throws in some odd details without much context, like a silver metal man who plays a key role in the latter part of the story. But I liked the gradual reveals about Sergeant Hoffman’s face and background and about the doughboys, and the wittiness of the way “doughboy” both references WWI soldiers and alludes to their brawn-with-little-brain nature. The story shifts gears rather abruptly in the aftermath of the battle, and the sentimentality of the ending needed more foundation and time with these characters to really work for me.

Digression on the 20Booksto50K controversy: For those not already aware of the 2018 Nebula “not a slate” tumult, “Going Dark,” like “Interview at the End of the World” (reviewed below), “Messenger,” and three other current Nebula nominees, is tied to a group of indie authors known as 20Booksto50K, which is shorthand for the group’s approach to literary marketing. Jonathan Brazee (author of the also-nominated novella Fire Ant) published a Facebook post with a list of hopeful nominees by indie authors (and group members), almost all in the MilSF subgenre. At the same time the post claims “this is not a slate!,” it manages to meet most of the objective criteria for a voting slate. Others have dug deeply into this controversy (see, for example, here, here and here) and Brazee has since apologized in a statement posted on File770. The matter is still playing out. Though personally I think that the emphasis on “woke” stories in the recent years with the Nebula and (excepting the Sad/Rabid Puppy nominees) Hugo awards nominations far too often leads to otherwise unremarkable stories getting nominated, the stories on the 20Booksto50K group’s list, like those on the Puppies’ lists, are by and large even more resoundingly mediocre, if not actually bad. That’s no way to prove your point, people. It’s more likely to make the SFWA regret extending membership rights to indie authors. ~Tadiana Jones

The story opens with a bang, in the middle of a battlefield between Terran Union soldiers and the Naroosha. Sgt. Chris Hoffman leads a team of “doughboys” — soldier constructs bigger and stronger and tougher than regular humans. The Terrans make it out, though not without casualties. Even more disturbing, something seems to have gone wrong with several of the doughboys, leading Hoffman to a surprising and sorrowful revelation.

“Going Dark” has a sort of dual-tonality to it, with the first half rat-a-tat-tat military sci-fi complete with energy rays, saucers, cyborg-like soldiers, daring rescues, bittersweet victory. All handled capably enough, but without any sense of uniqueness or startlement, either in language, imagery, or concept. It then shifts gear in the latter part to a more emotional register, but the story’s brevity combined with that first half being focused on guns and things blowing up, means there really isn’t a lot of time to establish a sense of character such that one feels any real emotion beyond the situational context. Which left the story feeling more overly sentimental or maudlin than truly affective. ~Bill Capossere

“Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno (99c Kindle version). 2018 Nebula award nominee (short story).

This is a prequel story to a larger preexisting series by Bruno, though it certainly stands on its own. At the news of an impending extinction-level asteroid impact, inventor-industrialist Darien Trass builds a ship that can take three thousand people to try to start a human colony on Titan. Trass has done all the winnowing down to that final number on his own so nobody else (including his adopted daughter Kara) has to feel the guilt of rejecting someone and leaving them to certain death.

The story opens a week before impact with Trass’ interview of Frank Drayton, a 27-year-old horticulturist and, like all who’ve made it this far, a leading expert in his field. The interview is held in Trass’ fortified compound, outside of which is a mob of people who, understandably enough, don’t want to be left behind. Luckily, the Trass compound is remote (in the Arizona desert) and is one of only several such projects, though the other ones seek only to place people on orbiting space stations or moon colonies. After the interview, the story leaps ahead to less than 24 hours before impact as final preparations for launch are being made. As one might expect, things don’t go quite as planned, and Trass is forced to deal with an unexpected crisis, as well as a more aggressive, forceful mob no longer content to wait outside the walls and gate, all leading to a painful decision to be made.

The story has a real classic sci-fi feel to it, à la early Asimov, which sounds like praise, and I guess by a certain type of reader will be sincerely taken as such. But while early Asimov was good sci-fi in his time, the genre has moved on quite a bit since then in terms of character and style and it feels like this story hasn’t kept pace. The language is pedestrian at best and often clunky, exposition is clumsily inserted, and the characterization is simply flat. Worse, it has the old-style feel to it as well in its plotting in that it feels I’ve read this story several times before (or seen the movie version — particularly When Worlds Collide). The elements are all there — the billionaire industrialist, the good soldiers, the angry mob, the “best and brightest” applicants, the “being torn” over whom to choose, the daughter, etc. All of them leading to a highly predictable ending.

I have to say as well that in modern America, it seems more than a little implausible that an angry mob facing sure destruction limits themselves to flinging insults and rocks — this country is an armed camp; I’m pretty sure fifty soldiers weren’t going to cut it in terms of defense (and that’s assuming no military tries to get in themselves). That wasn’t the only question I had with regard to plot. Those looking for a good bit of nostalgia might enjoy this, but it was for me the least worthy of the short story nominees and the one that truly befuddled. ~Bill Capossere

Bill has done an excellent job of both outlining the basic plot of Bruno’s “Interview for the End of the World” and describing the problems with this story. It does have a very retro feel to it, as Bill notes, and the plot is interesting on first read, if suspiciously familiar. But at the same time I was also noticing the clunkiness of the writing, beginning with the second sentence: “I quickly downed the remnants of a glass of lukewarm whiskey in my liver-spotted hand to calm my mind …” The insertion of “liver-spotted” gave me the giggles and set a new standard in my mind for awkward adjectives. At another point Trass thinks about how he originally adopted his assistant Kara when she was a child as a publicity stunt, but “then I fell in love with her.” My first thought was ew, yuck!, but I’m going to give Trass (and Bruno) the benefit of the doubt here and assume he meant fatherly rather than romantic love. The text really should have made that more clear, though.

“Interview for the End of the World” is both superficial and implausible, but it didn’t plumb the depths of awfulness that I personally require before I slap a one star rating on a story. Still, it’s a prime example of the lack of critical analysis that went into the “not a slate” suggested nomination list circulated by the 20Booksto50K indie authors group to its members. ~Tadiana Jones


  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.