Our exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few recent stories we’ve read that we wanted you to know about.
Al Huxley and Cu are detectives and partners in this near-future SF tale. Cu is a chimpanzee whose intelligence has been enhanced to human-level through a company’s cruel and illegal experimentation. Granted “personhood” rights ― and a hefty settlement ― in a court case, Cu still feels isolated. She’s most comfortable alone in her Washington state home, off Puget Sound, usually working with Huxley on a remote basis, and using sign language or a tablet and speech synthesizer to communicate with Huxley and other humans.
Cu and Huxley’s latest case is an apparently random subway murder by a young woman, Elody Polle. Their investigation leads to a technological phenomenon called echogirl/echoboy, where people allow others to buy the right to see through their eyes through contact lens-like cameras, listen through their ears, and give them a constant stream of instructions on what to do and say. Someone may have taken the echogirl role too far … But it proves extremely hard to trace whoever was behind Elody’s actions.
Small details in this story bring it to life, like Elody Polle’s mood-display floral pattern dress, where the flowers change from tight buds to full bloom depending on the wearer’s mood. Cu’s apartment is a marvel, filled with customized webbing and rafters for climbing, but it’s a little heartbreaking to read:
The design consultant, an excitable architect from Estonia, suggested artificial trees sprouting hydroponic moss. But Cu has no use for green things. She grew up in dull gray and antiseptic white.
There’s a lot more going on in this story than I thought there would be when I started reading it. It’s insightful and contemplative, much more than a straightforward murder mystery starring a simian detective. Larson shares many details that make you feel Cu’s feelings of isolation and her aversion to public attention, which drive her to isolate herself in her apartment. It’s hard for Cu to feel comfortable in a human world where she doesn’t readily fit in. “Meat And Salt And Sparks” is rather melancholic but, in the end, also uplifting (pun totally intended, sorry!). ~Tadiana Jones
Saffron is one of the official food tasters for Duke Michal, the regent for an infant prince. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Duke, who everyone calls the Evil King, plans to usurp the throne in the near future. But meanwhile he and his soldiers have terrorized the entire kingdom, murdering or imprisoning those who try to stand against them. They’ve also kidnapped Saffron’s husband Danny, a gifted pastry baker, because of his ability to magically infuse his confections with the ability to evoke memories. Now the royal pastry chef, Danny is confined to his kitchens, not permitted to see or even communicate with Saffron.
Saffron offered to take any job at the palace, just to be closer to Danny. The Duke has made her the Confection Taster, doubtless thinking that if Danny has any plan to try to poison the Duke, he’ll have to poison his wife as well. Now there’s an immense royal banquet, including several courses of Danny’s magical pastries that Saffron tastes before anyone else. Saffron begins to surmise, from the memories the different pastries bring to her mind, that Danny has some kind of plan, but what is it?
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” is well-crafted and wondrous. All of the pieces fit together so well, with just the right amount of foreshadowing. There are numerous flashbacks, when Saffron is recalling the memories that Danny’s pastries evoke in her, with these sections of the story titled after the charming names of the pastries, like “Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth” and “Rose-Pepper Shortbread of Sweetness Lost.” This story has deeper elements as well; the twin themes of the need to fight against tyrants, and the temptation to leave those battles to others when you and yours are safe and comfortable, are woven in without becoming overbearing. I do wonder just a little about the linchpin concept of the story: [HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL SPOILER] The last pastry doesn’t seem like it should work without the Duke having personally seen the death and pain he has caused others, and that level of personal involvement by the ruler seen seems rather doubtful to me.[END SPOILER] But that’s a minor quibble; overall I highly recommend this read. ~Tadiana Jones
Underpinning Kate Lechler’s “The Magician Deletes Her Feed,” a charming tale of post-graduate angst and social media envy, is a story about the magic of hope. Lechler’s gentle humor and fine use of homey details, like a favorite tea mug or a conversation with a parent, make this a pleasure to read line-by-line, but the question it asks is ultimately serious: is it even possible to make the world better?
My reactions to a story are sometimes tempered by my reactions to the world around me, and for someone with my political beliefs right now, the USA is a difficult place to live. It’s easy to give into a sense of despair and cynicism. I appreciated “The Magician Deletes Her Feed” all the more because it models one way to hang onto hope.
Ana has a doctorate degree in the practice of magic, even though her social anxiety nearly derailed her thesis defense. She has no job, though. She wants to do something important with magic, and is working on an old, previously debunked spell for actually creating matter. So far she’s been unsuccessful. Ana wastes, er, spends a lot of time on YouScroll, the magical social media of her world, fighting envy as she reads about the successes and exploits of her classmates; she takes endless YouScroll quizzes and is startled to see how much time has gone by when she just meant to look for one thing. She graduated, she hoped to change the world, but … now what? In the background, steadily growing like an ominous drumbeat, is a litany of worldwide problems. Most urgently, a blight is destroying grain crops across the world. One of her friends is trying to solve it, to no avail.
Ana wrestles with her YouScroll addiction and her spell, finally facing her own fears. She does leave YouScroll for a while, but Lechler isn’t giving us a knee-jerk social-media-is-evil message here. Social media is good and bad, and in the end information from her friends is what helps Ana make her final decision. Lechler’s knowledge of and affection for social media give this story just the right touches. (When Ana informs her parents she will be leaving social media for a while, her mother plaintively asks, “So, will you still play UnicornCity with me?”)
The story exists, to some extent, in conversation with Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians. Although she faces some of the same conflicts, Ana takes a different path than the one of entitlement and ennui that Grossman’s characters chose. “The Magician Deletes Her Feed” is an enjoyable story that will leave you with plenty to think about. ~Marion Deeds
Full disclosure: The author of this story, Kate Lechler, is a former reviewer with Fantasy Literature.
In “Cold Comfort,” Pat Murphy and the late Paul Doherty take a different look at global warming. Dr. Maggie Lindsey is a climate scientist who has gone rogue. Her main concern is methane release and its impact on the environment. In the Arctic, she is working hard to install carbon-fiber mats that capture methane as it reaches the surface of the ground; a technique dubbed “fart-catching” by its fans. Maggie is not above taking some extreme measures to make her point, as we see in the story’s opening paragraphs. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Maggie is successful at the end of the story. As a character says to her, “You can’t save the world without changing the world.”
I liked how science was used in this story, not only the physics of the methane-trapping device, but the use of online community and the internet. Maggie is forced to crowdfund her experiment. When the terrain stubbornly resists attempts to install the carbon-fiber mats, an internet plea results in a group of muskoxen herders showing up, muskoxen in tow. The story lingers on the interconnectedness of things. Unfortunately, Maggie cannot prevail against political inertia and shortsightedness. Fortunately, small groups of brave, smart people working together can make important changes.
Maggie lives long enough to see the earth transit through this period of global warming. As I said, it’s up to the reader to determine whether the ending is optimistic or pessimistic. Despite the catastrophic cost, I am optimistic at the end. ~Marion Deeds